TriMet refuses to release records despite concerns about safety

TriMet refuses to release records despite concerns about safety »Play Video
A TriMet security camera.

PORTLAND, Ore. – TriMet is refusing to release maintenance and inspection records on the 4,400 security cameras installed throughout its system.  That hasn’t stopped KATU On Your Side investigators, however, from uncovering some alarming information about problems within the transit agency, including state reports that say critical inspections aren’t being done and even a TriMet safety review saying drivers may not know how to use key equipment on their own buses.

TriMet executives say they rely heavily on cameras to keep riders safe.

"Crime on the TriMet system over the last year has gone down by about 25 percent," said TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane at a news conference last month.

He and his safety and security chief, Harry Saporta, announced the agency had finished installing cameras at all MAX stations.

The project was paid for largely by the Transportation Security Administration, which has given TriMet more than $4.9 million since 2005.

"If you intend to commit a crime on the transit system,” Saporta said, “Please think twice, because you are going to be caught on camera."

That’s not always true.

A camera captured video of three teens beating a 14-year-old girl on the MAX Green Line in December of 2011, but the camera didn’t belong to TriMet.

"They all came at me, and I was pinned in the corner, and I was hit numerous times," said the victim, Karley Buckland, in an interview with KATU around two weeks later.

Buckland’s parents criticized police at the time, saying they didn't do enough about the attack, which another rider captured on a cellphone and posted on YouTube. A TriMet surveillance camera was running on the train during the incident, but the recording system malfunctioned and police couldn't play back the footage. Officers admitted they had no idea the attack was so ugly until they saw the cellphone video about a week later.

How often do cameras fail like this? That’s what KATU has been struggling to find out.

For nearly two months, both in person and in writing, On Your Side Investigators have asked for maintenance and inspection records from TriMet to find out how many cameras may or may not be working at any given time. KATU has said repeatedly it’s not asking for TriMet to reveal locations of any possible problem cameras because the information could be helpful to criminals.
   
Still TriMet has refused.

"It's part of our overall security strategy,” said Saporta last month. “We cannot reveal that information at this time."
     
Other public records we uncovered, despite TriMet's roadblocks, offer a glimpse of a transit system with big problems.

The state’s latest triennial safety and security review found TriMet didn’t have a process in place to make sure key safety inspections of trains were completed, and that many tools and pieces of equipment appeared to need calibration.

An Almagamated Transit Union records request made during recent contract negotiations said, "TriMet came very close to losing federal funding because the agency was failing to maintain the proper preventative maintenance schedule."

On Twitter, riders who often monitor scanner traffic have posted alarming reports they say they've heard from TriMet dispatchers and on TriMet vehicles.

One tweet from Portland Afoot says a MAX driver wants a mirror because the rear cameras "fail or become ineffective on a regular basis.”

Another from TriMet Scanner says "security camera has failed.”

And yet another from that same username claims simply, "MAX camera non functional."

Despite all of these issues, about all McFarlane has been able to admit is that, “Some of these cameras are due for some continued investment."

Transit agencies in other cities like Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C. have made surveillance camera maintenance and inspection records public.

Last year, records revealed around one-sixth of all bus camera systems in Seattle weren't working.

In one case, a man shot a bus driver, DeLoy Dupuis, while he was on the job, leaving him wounded in his cheek and arm. The two security cameras that could've recorded the shooting failed.

Journalists got that information from Seattle transit authorities without threatening legal action.

TriMet, however, says it's different, claiming the public in Portland doesn't have a right to know if their surveillance system is working.

"We could tell you but we don't because it's security sensitive,” said TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt.

KATU asked Multnomah County's district attorney to force TriMet to release the records, and got an odd response when he denied it.

He wrote that KATU’s “petition presents an unusual set of circumstances" because even he wasn't allowed to look at the maintenance and inspection records KATU wanted.

TriMet and the TSA call the information KATU asked for SSI, a government acronym that stands for Sensitive Security Information.

KATU lawyers read the law and couldn't find where it says maintenance records fall under the SSI classification. On Your Side Investigators also never got a straight answer as to why TriMet’s records are kept secret when other transit agencies that have received Department of Homeland Security and TSA money have made that information available.