By MALLORY GRUBEN
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 wants lawmakers to tighten a law that classifies assaults on transit workers as felonies.
Senate Bill 787 would make it a felony to assault transit operators any time they’re on the job. Under current law, it’s a felony to assault a transit operator when their vehicle is moving, but a misdemeanor when it’s stopped.
“Offenders understand this. Over 90% of assaults occur when the bus or train is not moving,” wrote Local 757 lobbyist Don Loving in public testimony supporting the bill. “Operators are assaulted in their seats at stops, outside the bus when they’re helping handicapped or elderly patrons board, or even when taking a quick bathroom break at a transit center.”
Local 757 asked lawmakers once before to make this change, in 2017. That year the union reported what union officers thought were alarming statistics—55 assaults that year—said Bill Bradley, Local 757 public policy coordinator. Now, Bradley said, assaults are on pace to quadruple or quintuple that.
Drivers have shared stories of being assaulted while stopped for passengers to board, only to see their assailant on the bus weeks later, Bradley said. At least one bus driver stopped working because she developed post traumatic stress disorder after she was attacked. Bradley testified that safety concerns are making it harder for transit agencies to recruit drivers.
“Word has gotten out that the environment facing bus operators is not safe,” Bradley said, “not due to lack of investment from transit agencies, but due to lack of accountability for bad actors.”
The bill has bipartisan support, as well as the backing of transit agencies like TriMet and Lane Transit District.
Opponents to the bill say it would do little to protect transit workers, but would lead to more convictions of people struggling with mental illness. That would put a greater burden on an already stressed legal system, testified Mae Lee Browning of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Loving says Local 757’s goal is not to put more people in jail but to hold people accountable for knowingly hurting transit workers.
“Some folks who are assaulting have (mental health) challenges. We recognize that,” Loving testified. “DAs will have to sort through that, as they do with other issues.”
Miles Pengilly, state government affairs manager for TriMet, says his agency has added physical barriers on trains and buses to protect drivers from passengers.
“However, the protection provided by these shields, separated cabins, and the enhanced assault penalties in our legal system disappear when our operators exit their vehicles,” he testified.
Operators often need to exit the bus or train to use the bathroom or investigate mechanical issues. If they’re assaulted in one of those moments, the current felony penalty does not apply.
“Senate Bill 787 would simply expand the application of existing state law by making it a Class C felony to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause physical injury to transit operators in all circumstances when they are on the job,” Pengilly said.
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