Transit officials ask lawmakers to boost penalties for attacks on their employees
Officials from four Oregon transit agencies appealed to state lawmakers this week for help in making sure their riders and employees are safe.
It comes after a passenger killed another passenger on a bus in Eugene, and after a brutal attack on a light rail platform in Gresham.
The violent incidents are taking their toll on transit employees, said Jameson Auten, the CEO of Lane Transit District, which serves Eugene, Springfield and surrounding communities.
"We're having issues recruiting for bus operators, and the ones that are there are mentally drained, to the point that it's a safety concern," Auten told members of the Oregon's Legislature's Joint Committee on Transportation.
Physical attacks on drivers and passengers are rare, said Auten. But he said his employees are subject to a near-daily barrage of verbal and emotional harassment.
“People who go to work and expect to put in a regular day of work serving the public should not expect (that) to happen to them each day," he said. "The result of this has been that we’re starting to see long term employees retire.”
Auten said that’s one reason why LTD has scheduled a round of service cuts in February.
Officials from three other transit agencies testified Tuesday: TriMet, which serves the Portland area; Cherriots, which serves the Salem area; and the Rogue Valley Transportation District, which serves the Medford area.
The hearing came one day before TriMet issued its second-ever "lifetime exclusion," in response to the Jan. 3 attack at a light rail station, which left a 78-year-old victim with serious injuries. TriMet said it issued its ban to the suspect while he remains in jail, awaiting trial on assault charges.
TriMet also said Wednesday that it's issuing two five-year bans to passengers accused in separate incidents, including one that involved an alleged assault on a security officer at a light rail station.
New penalties proposed
The transit agencies are asking lawmakers to approve a bill that would stiffen penalties for people who attack transit employees. Senate Bill 787, which has bipartisan sponsorship, has not been scheduled for a hearing.
While the violence on the Eugene bus in November was not directed toward a transit employee, Auten said the incident spurred a thorough review of the agency's security protocols.
One immediate change, he said, was to create a more visible presence of LTD employees on board the agency's buses.
"Our executive team, our administrative staff, we're riding buses more," said Auten. "We're riding buses in LTD-branded gear, just to let our operators know we're there and to let the public know that we're there."
That simple step was praised by lawmakers, though some were careful to differentiate between uniformed civilian employees as opposed to law enforcement officers.
"It's not designed to find out how many times you can find somebody doing something wrong, but a presence that says we are here as part of the community, part of the system, to try to keep you safe," said Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. "There's a difference, in my view, between just saying 'we've got somebody who's got a weapon that can be pulled out at anytime' versus 'we've got somebody that can de-escalate, that can handle something.'"