Sunday, December 31, 2017
Bits of Bovine Feces
It's been a rough and grisly 2017 for Portland transit employees. Not only have bus and rail operators been assaulted, but also supervisors and maintenance personnel. In 2016, we counted 55 incidents of menacing, threatening and physical assaults. As we end this year, there have been 91. Our Director of Safety & Security, Harry Saporta, is either unaware of the correct numbers, or he uses a different set of rationale in determining what constitutes an "assault."
A transit operator is responsible for many things, including the safety of all in and around the vehicle. When a passenger disrupts service, the operator must use superhuman problem-solving skills. All our concentration is necessary to smoothly guide the vehicle down the road, we're expected to use "verbal judo" to restore calm. Not knowing the psychological makeup of the aggressors having only just welcomed them to the ride, having never seen or met them before, this is virtually impossible. Even a mental health professional would agree with this statement. Yet the responsibility falls upon the operator to determine how to deal with any given situation that arises on our ride. Usually, if "shit gets too thick," our trained response is to inform Dispatch and let these supervisors take the lead. But what happens when passengers turn to us and ask why we aren't "doing something about it?" This is where it gets tricky. Sometimes, a simple few words from an operator, who is the ultimate "Captain of the Ship," can infuriate the passenger who doesn't recognize our authority.
If you're on a ship at sea, in a plane 30,000 feet over nowhere, or a train passenger, a logical-thinking human won't challenge the captain/pilot/conductor's authority. On a bus however, the operator isn't afforded the same respect. "Just drive, asshole," is the favored command of our passengers. Mind our business, which is to drive, they tell us. Sorry, but we cannot safely do so when some nincompoop is spouting feces from his oral cavity, disrupting our peaceful ride. If we use a tone of voice that suggests "authority," some take offense and turn their tirade upon us.
One time this happened to me, and Dispatch instructed me to not "engage" with the passenger, and to speak only to her via radio. This tactic is surely meant to remove any perceived threat to someone who refuses to abide by district codes of conduct. At this moment, Dispatch is likely coordinating efforts to send police, road supes and if necessary, paramedics to our location. I don't know about you, but if someone throws a punch at me, I'm not likely to take it just sitting there. It's not human nature. We're biologically constructed to protect ourselves, and if need be, disable our attacker when we feel endangered. That last step however, can result in the loss of our job, or at least a suspension. Even if we're pummeled, we're not allowed to fight back. It's a miserable code of conduct we're expected to abide by.
Operators define an "assault" as any action by another which threatens our safety. This could be a menacing verbal threat, someone purposefully brushing our shoulder on the way out the door while cursing us, a drink thrown at us, being spit or puked upon, having insults screamed in our face, or an actual physical assault. The district, for some strange reason, tends to solely define "assault" as physical aggression. This is misleading in that it furthers the notion that we're still expected to operate after our bodies have experienced a severe biological shock. The "fight or flight" response to a threat or an assault is scientifically proven to have a lasting effect on the victim. It can sometimes take weeks, months or even years to recover from it. The adrenaline rush, hormonal explosion and muscle tension can be thoroughly exhausting even though the crisis may only last a few minutes. Those who continue in service after such an incident are not fully capable of driving safely because the operator's mind constantly replays the incident. Instead, we need to concentrate on all we're trained to do in the seat. This is called "distracted," or even "impaired" driving, which in other contexts is illegal. Therefore, as far as many operators are concerned, the term "assault" covers a wide spectrum of offenses. It's certainly more inclusive of the open hands we're faced with on the job than the district's deceptively-slim definition of the term.
What's most disheartening is our management's cognitive disconnect from our reality. So far, it has only offered tiny bandages for our gaping wounds. A panel of operators recommends that each bus have "barriers" installed to protect us from the bad guys. When I voiced my opposition to one of these operators, he seemed offended and challenged me to offer proof that the barriers wouldn't be effective. As a single operator, I was merely offering my opinion. Yet he seemed to take it as a personal insult. I was shocked, and tried to explain my reasons for not agreeing with this step. I said it would offend the vast majority of those who respect the ride, and might further infuriate aggressors. To me, this is simple common-sense thinking. To my brother, it was not. If I wanted to work in a cubicle, I wouldn't be a bus operator. Ultimately, we have to leave our cage at some point. I hate the idea of "hiding" behind a barrier. It removes the human interaction that is an important part of our jobs. Simply put, I dislike the idea. It's a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem. It's also cheaper than increasing security. Reality sucks sometimes.
As I watched the most recent district board of directors meeting, our Director of Safety & Security, Harry Saporta, stumbled through a clumsy presentation on assaults. His "stats" are dramatically lower than reality, as his graph over the first three quarters of 2017 list 28 assaults on transit workers. Our "unofficial" stats show more than triple that number. "Unfortunately," Saporta said, "the numbers are relatively flat. Ah, um, we seem to be making some improvements, but then we see a little bit of a rise and we're still trying to study that and understand exactly why that is."
Flat? What? Yeah, your numbers are. Like an operator's nose smashed by a criminal's fist. Put our stats on a graph compared to management's, and it's more like Mt. Hood overshadowing the Eastern Oregon desert. And you see a "little bit of a rise?" Get your eyes checked, Bullwinkle. I'd say a difference of 63 incidents is quite a rise, yeah. And why is that? Who gives a damn? What are you going to do about it, is the question we're asking.
Oh yeah, you're going to cage us all, making it even more difficult to escape the most determined assailants. Rather than expanding security on buses, it concentrates its attention on light rail after the grisly murder of two brave men who stepped up to protect two young ladies being harassed. True, a few rail operators were assaulted this year, but the majority of offenses is against bus drivers. You might argue in favor of the barriers because of this fact. However, I'm not sold. "Barriers are accepted by most operators," Saporta said. Well not this one, nor many others I've spoken with about them.
Management has disciplined operators for fighting back, but most of these criminals escape severe punishment. Our mental and physical torment should be enough, but management feels the need to suspend operators for any form of retaliation. One operator whose reputation and honor was sullied on the local news because of a whiny miscreant, decided his only escape from torment was to retire after decades of service. After his side of the story was aired by operator advocates, management silently allowed him to fade into the sunset. I never heard it defend his honor or his rock-solid reputation.
Still, there is reason for optimism. After years of simply beating a drum, management is finally taking shaky steps to address operator assaults. While I may not like the ideas being put forth, I'm encouraged it's no longer the creepy uncle hiding in the shadows at our family reunions. Uncle Creepster has been outed at least. We may argue about how to deal with him, but at least we're talking about his antics.
As for anyone who abuses me while I'm attempting to provide you with a safe ride, be warned. Old farts don't fight fair; we can't afford to. My life and personal safety are more important to me than some fallible management edict. I will not sit back and allow someone to pummel this public servant without "reasonably" protecting myself. If some drug-addled cretin crawls onto the dash to render the hallowed barrier useless with a full-frontal attack, can I "reasonably" assume my life is at risk and use extreme measures against the assailant? Take it however you may, but my definition of "reasonable" is drastically different than that of the pampered and misinformed assailants who do us harm. If I were disposed to have some of whatever drug they share, maybe I wouldn't care so much.
Safe travels, and Happy New Year.