Wednesday, May 31, 2017

It's the Driver's Fault... Of Course

It takes me time to wrap my feelings around tragedy. I suppose it does for a lot of people. Now the blood has dried, yet Portland's (and the world's) tears still flow for who we lost. And also, now the transit agency kicks out its knee-jerk reaction with promises of safer rides. After, that is, another tragedy that perhaps might have been prevented... if it had only listened to the chorus within it in the first place.

Words are easy to write or say, but tough to act upon. Many times I've shouted from the keyboard for management to do something to protect us. They came up with cages. They suspended drivers with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for protecting themselves when attacked. They blurted out predictable phrases which sound drafted from some disjointed corporate memo. The problem remains, and that is they do not, cannot, understand what it's like out on the front lines. Insulated from mental illness by an office building far-removed from the trenches, they don't feel the fear that visibly emanates from those of us who make the vehicles roll.

I often wonder about the operator of the light rail vehicle the recent stabbings took place upon. What a nightmare scenario to have run through your head. It must be similar to people who constantly watch the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. While operators can't actually see events as they happen behind them, the facts have been described in brutal detail. None of the reports focuses on what the operator must feel. They largely focus on the bloody act, the murderer, witnesses and the lone heroic survivor. Only a transit operator can imagine the anguish and grief this brother must feel. I hope he was granted a few days off to recover, but given the agency's lack of understanding, it's easy to doubt. Next comes the public's desire to find someone to blame for allowing such horror to happen.

This evening, I watched a KATU news anchor say (See Transit Increases Patrols) the agency is "working to make its transit system safer, in the wake of the deadly attack." Once again, our agency is reactive, instead of proactive in implementing  changes. It took tragedy for management to sit up and take action. A reporter at the transit center where the murders occurred said the agency has deployed more officers at light rail stops throughout the system. He also stated the agency "plans on hiring an additional 15 officers," and that "riders say they're seeing more transit officers on the MAX." The agency had planned on hiring the additional officers prior to this tragedy, but says this addition will now be expedited. Nothing about the bus system, which tends to experience one or two assaults on operators each week.

Suddenly, the news report mysteriously changes directions. It's one we're all too familiar with: blame the operators. The reporter interviews a few passengers, settling on one who states that "drivers should take de-escalation classes, rather than making things worse." A light rail operator cannot see what's happening in the rail cars. Passengers can alert the operator of possible trouble, but unlike on a bus, operators don't always have personal interaction with their riders. This statement seems to shift blame for the tragedy from the suspect to the operator. As if he could have magically ended the incident with some well-placed Michael Jordan-esque psychological moves, without even having eyes on the scene. During this segment of the report, images shift from light rail vehicles to buses. It makes no mention of the 22 assaults on transit operators so far this year.

Then we hear from our illustrious GM, who of course agrees and says he will see that we operators take "additional mental health training" to "actually grow their confidence to deal with people and provide a really welcoming presence, a safety presence to everybody on the transit system. (Coughing fit here, excuse me but I must gag as well. There, thank you.) I doubt that even a bouquet of roses and a key to the city would have stopped the suspected murderer from committing his bloody acts.

Every time someone enters my bus, they are greeted with a smile and a hello. They get at least a smile and a nod even if they're wrestling with pockets or purse to find money or ticket that should have been ready when they boarded. That's what I was trained to do originally, and constantly throughout my career. Direct eye contact helps me determine the passenger's mood, giving me a hint of how I might deal with them if trouble erupts. We've already been trained on "de-escalation" even if Polly Public in the interview thinks we're always "making things worse." They often haven't a clue of what's going on because they're usually plugged in and tuned out until a situation gets interesting.

Many times, I've calmly explained the rules to unruly passengers, asking nicely that they comply. The escalation usually comes from the passenger, who hasn't been taught the basics of transit code, has learned that they control the ride rather than the operator because the agency rarely backs us up, or refuses to accept we're supposed to be Captain of the Ship. (We were once upon a time, before our hands were zip-tied behind our backs.)

We're expected to bend over sideways, break our backs so we can reach down and kiss the rude bastard's ass, then present our vulnerable bodies for physical abuse, because arguing or fighting back can get us suspended or fired. Hell, that last sentence could get me fired, because it wasn't cleared by the information officer before I dared write it. Screw that. Somebody has to speak up and it might as well be your anonymous Deke.

If we're then assaulted, the Monday Morning Quarterback team is assembled to watch tape (something we can't do) and nitpick our every move. Very often, the operator is severely reprimanded for something said, a movement made, or a biological reaction to a threat. This from people who either haven't ever driven a bus, or haven't in a long time. It's infuriating at best, disheartening for sure, and has operator morale at an all-time low. We're not protected, we're disrespected, and we're suspected... all while doing our job: safely transporting our fellow Portlanders.

Now we'll apparently be given "additional mental health training." So in addition to being berated and beaten at an alarming rate, we're supposed to become mental health counselors. Hmm. I hope our union is listening to this and bargaining for at least $10 more per hour for this new professional requirement. Will we be allowed to bill the passengers for this service? Can we hang a shingle outside the bus door with our new certifications and fee expectations?

Before I go further, let me do something our management or the local media hasn't done: I commend the light rail operator, whose professionalism has so unceremoniously trashed by the agency and public in this skewed news segment. You are not to blame for this tragedy. It was a senseless act of violence by a suspect who is obviously mentally deranged. No amount of "training" you would have prevented it. You were simply doing as you do daily: safely operating your vehicle. Short of leaving the seat (whoa!) and putting yourself between the victims and the knife, you had no control of the situation, nor could you ever be expected to. My soul feels empathy for you, because you are a silent and conspicuously absent victim. Peace to you as you heal from this incident on your train.

Instead of taking a stand and supporting the brave and steady union workers who make this transit agency hum, our GM threw us under the bus. Once again, the problems are our fault. Not a peep about assaults. No mention of pride for his valuable workers. No wonder Portland doesn't respect us... our own management acts as if it thinks we're incapable of safely transporting 330,000+ passengers a day. Wait a minute, we DO that!

Cage us. Demean us. Blame, suspend, discard and abuse us. This is the new transit agency human relations strategy. We cannot simultaneously drive safely, remain on schedule, provide exemplary customer service, AND physically or emotionally protect every person who rides with us. It's inhuman and foolish to expect anyone to live up to this irrational set of standards.

Sometimes, it's the most down-to-earth people I deal with every day who understand life the most clearly. When Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate, he constantly amazed people with his homey yet profound stories. Many would groan when he'd say "This reminds me of..." One story of his that stands out deals with basic common sense. It goes something like this:

"I was riding circuit one day when I was approached by two men who asked me to settle their argument. One was a long wiry sort of feller, the other short and stout. The long one said a man's legs should be long so he can see far above a crowd. The short one his legs were stronger and able to better support his body. They wanted to know my opinion. 'Well fellers,' I said, 'I believe a man's legs ought to be just long enough to reach the ground.' "

This is the story I thought of when one of my riders put it simply: "You can't stop crazy, man."

It seems we've come to a point where our legs have been knocked out from beneath our hips, and we're floating in limbo between reality and a surrealistic ground we're supposed to tread. We're like a snake that's lost its head... writhing and twisting in agony while the head keeps snapping. We need somebody or something to step in and sew up the pieces. Otherwise, this disconnect could kill us all.


  1. Wow !! Not one word from the Union demanding security for the employees. Shameful ! Deke, you need to send this article to the news media. I hate to say it but something horrible will happen again unless the Union and the media are made aware of the non-support, bullying and assaults the drivers face. Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness !

  2. Unbelievable! I hope the union steps up for all the drivers. It is NOT your job to diffuse a volatile situation! You are not a MEMBER OF THE TRAINED SWAT TEAM, nor are you paid to be. Amazing how management always wants more out of their employees and look the other way when they should be backing you up. This is not America, and we need to take it back!

  3. Well spoken.And I can tell you drive a MEAN bus,as in a good operator. Sure have A TOP heavy agency! Sincerely,Mull Stew!

    1. Thanks. I try to be a nice guy. My blood pressure has risen about 100 points lately though.

  4. Riders expect operators to act, but managers do not sanction our authority to do so. When management doesn't respect the agency which authorizes a transit operator to take action when needed, then administrative policy has trumped actual public safety in the field.

    1. Suspending is easier than defending, for some strange and convolutin' reason. These actions have us all shaking our heads and thinking, "who let the dogs out?"

  5. Laura Bryan McQuistonJune 7, 2017 at 6:19 PM

    I had no idea how poorly transit workers were treated until my brother became one. It is shameful, but all too familiar. I am a teacher and our administration blames teachers first and figures out what happened later. We are not allowed to protect ourselves either. I am not talking about punching a kid, but simply putting up our hands to deflect a punch being thrown at the face is considered an act of aggression and could be cause for termination. We also have a union that is less than helpful and this is coming from the head rep in my building. Who knew teaching and transit had so much in common. I feel you and all the brothers and sisters of TriMet.

    1. Thanks Laura, it’s eerie how our service occupations have become battlefields where the defense has no...defense.

  6. When the first question for a driver who is assaulted is, "What did you do to provoke this attack?" A driver knows the management is *CYA* Covering Your Avenues.

  7. Doug Kelsey, former TransLink CEO is a great waste of time and were glad to get rid of him.

    The consummate bureaucrat, will never accept blame if he can pin it on others. A corporate coward.

    We do not want him back!

  8. Kelsey was sort of forced to leave TransLink during a spate of SkyTrain shutdowns a few summers back. Translink, with their usual corporate, "we don't give a damn" attitude, left the customer on boiling 100 degree trains.

    Lack of any management concern after 20 minutes, the people abandoned SkyTrain in droves, forcing Translink to turn off the power.

    Kelsey wanted those abandoning the trains arrested and put in jail (there were thousands of them) until saner heads prevailed and ignored his diktats.

    Kelsey was sent to corporate Coventry and soon left to destroy, er manage another transit system.

    We are glad he's gone and feel those who hired him were complete fools or rubes.

    As I said before, we do not want him back!