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Transit officials ask lawmakers to boost penalties for attacks on their employees

LTD bus at downtown Eugene transit terminal.
Nathan Wilk
Officials with four Oregon transit agencies, including Lane Transit District, testified at a legislative hearing Tuesday on public transit safety.

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.

Two people sitting at a table in a legislative hearing room.
LTD social media
In this photo posted on an LTD social media account, LTD Public Safety Manager Josh Schmit (left) and CEO Jameson Auten (right) prepare to testify to the Joint Legislative Committee on Transportation.

“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.'"

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December 2018 and became News Director in March 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
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