Monday, October 17, 2016

We Have to Fight for Our Safety!

Assaults on operators weigh heavily upon me. Not only that they happen with increasing regularity, but also because our transit agency is so utterly quiet about them. Not a peep in the media. Why?

Perhaps the agency is ashamed, but I doubt it. Management seems more concerned about our response when attacked rather than the effect on the assaulted operator. It's a very uncomfortable subject for them, yet far more so for us. 

We hear about how concerned the agency is about assaults, but we wouldn't hear about how operators can be suspended for fighting back, leaving the seat, allowing our emotions to overrule the edict of "de-escalation" and "non-confrontational discussion." This leaves the logical thinker to wonder why the agency doesn't stand up and loudly proclaim its full support of all operator assault victims. A responsible media, which once employed actual journalists, would inquire as to how the district cares for an operator who has been assaulted. The answers from on high would be usual corporate doublespeak, but the media isn't allowed to ask US how we feel. We're not allowed to talk to the media without permission and, I would guess, likely coached on guidelines on how we're expected to respond.

One day I drove a fellow operator to his road relief. We were discussing the assaults, and he had an interesting question.

"What actually constitutes an assault?"

According to Oregon Revised Statutes 163.165, Assault in the Third Degree is a Class B felony, only under these circumstances: "Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes, by means other than a motor vehicle, physical injury to the operator of a public transit vehicle while the operator is in control of or operating the vehicle."

Interpretation of this statement, while best left to more adept legal minds than mine, leads me to believe what I've been told by supervisors, that the vehicle must be in motion to qualify as a felony. Otherwise, it's a misdemeanor. As an operator of a transit vehicle, any time we're in the seat, we're in control of that vehicle. Unless a trained operator is at the controls, the vehicle could move. If a vehicle of that size moves, it endangers anyone in its vicinity. 

Back to my brother's question. He told me about an operator who was assaulted one night by the lone passenger on her bus. The passenger did not strike her, but he made an unwelcome physical advance. She repulsed him, and he exited. For several days, she didn't report it because she wasn't sure his action was actually an assault. I'm not sure what the outcome was, and I didn't press for more information. It did leave me feeling angry, because we're not actually trained as to what actions by passengers can be defined as "assault." Nor are we taught how to legally defend ourselves while facing forward in our seat.

Since this operator, as I understand it, did not sustain physical injury other than emotional distress, there would probably be no charges filed. Her waiting to report it isn't something to scorn. If she drives the same route every day, perhaps she believed nothing would come of it. Perhaps she believed that our agency's management wouldn't back her up, and that a police report could incite the offender to boldly step up his intensity at the next opportunity. Whatever her reasons, it's sad to feel so isolated on the front lines of transit.

A troubling point he offered was, "How many operators never report things, because they don't know if they were (assaults)?" Hmm... good question. A shove on the way out the door? Knocking off a hat, threatening language? Any number of instances might qualify, but I'll bet many operators shrug it off wondering if it's worth reporting, or fear it could bring retaliation later.

After an operator was spit upon a few days ago, the number of reported assaults on Portland transit employees has risen to 42 thus far in 2016. In 2015, there were 41 reported assaults. We still have 11 weeks to go. At this rate, operators are reporting just over four per month. If this trend continues, we're looking at 52 by the end of the year. That's an average of one each week. What if there have been another 50-100 incidents that might qualify but were not reported? It's an epidemic that will only worsen unless drastic measures are taken.

While we're not feeling the love from management, two of our brothers (Fred Casey and Mike McCurry) are working with Oregon Representative Susan McLain (District 29-Hillsboro, 503-986-1429) to sponsor a bill making assault of any transit employee a felony. I urge whoever reads this to call her, or if in another state your own representative, and support this drive.

If we can't physically defend ourselves without having a law degree to know what constitutes "reasonable self defense" in that moment we're attacked, should we simply just allow ourselves to be bloodied? It is a human's biological response to protect ourselves. It's in our physiological makeup, dating back to our evolutionary beginnings. As operators, we're expected to sit back, remember that others have been disciplined for defending themselves even though it's a natural response to a threat. Someone who is high on drugs, or drunk, doesn't have the psychological ability to know when to back off. They don't recognize our authority as Captains of the Ship. So if they hit me, I have to assume they will not stop assaulting me just because I ask them to cease and desist.

If (God forbid) anyone in management were attacked at their desk while safely within their office, surely they wouldn't be in fear of losing their job if they fought back. Our office has six wheels, and we're at risk every day. It's getting so bad that I wonder sometimes not what if, but when I'll have to defend myself. 

Since our agency won't fight for us, we have to make our own case to lawmakers. Hopefully these efforts will score a legal knockout punch. Even with this change in the law, it would still be nice to believe management is in our corner. 


  1. A lot of assaults are a result of an argument over fares between the passenger and operator. An operator is an informant not an enforcer. If there is a fare dispute, it's better not to refuse service , but to discretely report the evader.

  2. I'm sad to say I experienced a very disturbing moment on line 8 from a veteran. He was a delightful older man and we engaged in conversation and as I was saying goodbye he said he was disappointed he wasn't 50 years younger, because if it were up to him he'd come back at the end of my shift and take me. He then leaned in and tried to grab my chest and when I realized what he was doing I pushed him away, he threatened me and another passenger who had been talking to himself stepped in between us. I'm so disappointed that I didn't see that coming but from my perspective that was so unsettling I reported it. Nothing was done.

    1. Sorry that happened to you. It's incredibly hard to do this job without having to defend yourself, even worse as a lady fighting off a sexual predator. Nothing was done about it?!? I'm sorry but not surprised. Love you sister, hang in there.