Legislation that would protect the transit workers is stalled in Harrisburg.
Everyone agrees something has to be done to stop assaults on SEPTA drivers—which have tripled in the last few years—but no one can agree on a solution. The options that have been put on the table, like de-escalation training, police surveillance of buses and security cameras, have turned into a series of fights: The Transit Workers Union Local 234 vs. SEPTA; Harrisburg vs. Philly; legislator vs. legislator. And it’s the operators who are left hanging out to dry.
“We don’t really know why [the assaults are increasing],” says SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams. “We tend to surmise that it has something to do with the general frustrations about the economy and about employment and that the operator just happens to be a target, kind of sitting there.”
According to a TWU Local 234 Operator and Public Safety survey returned by 472 SEPTA operators, 40 percent had witnessed or suffered an assault while on the job just this year. Last year, there were 91 reported attacks. SEPTA reports show incidents like spitting on operators, pouring soda down their backs, grabbing “a female operator’s private parts,” getting sprayed with pepper spray and being cut with a razor blade aren’t uncommon. But they’re just now getting attention.
It all came to a head about a month ago, when three youths assaulted a SEPTA operator in Southwest Philly. “They pulled him out of his seat and threw him off the bus,” says TWU Local 234 President John Johnson. “And as he was staggering, another guy came and hit him in his nose. Then they got him on the ground, they kicked and punched him and he ended up with a cracked skull.”
To stop these attacks from increasing again in 2012—the most recent numbers available show 12 attacks in the first month and a half of this year—most parties affiliated with the Authority can only agree on one thing: Pass statewide legislation that would increase the penalty for those riders found guilty of assaulting operators. Senate Bill 236, introduced by State Sen. Christine Tartaglione (whose 2nd District covers part of Philly), would make assaults against operators a first-degree felony, similar to assaults on fire fighters, police officers, PPA officers, politicians and others involved in government. It would carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
“I believe it’s been three consecutive sessions [since SB 236 was introduced],” says J.P. Kurish, a spokesperson for Tartaglione. “It’s in front of the judiciary committee right now.”
Three sessions is six years. And unlike some bills in the Legislature, adding transportation workers to protected status doesn’t necessarily come across as hard politics. Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey held a press conference in September urging the bill’s passage. District Attorney Seth Williams has endorsed the bill, too. But that combined support has prompted little response.
“I don’t know exactly what the delay is in that bill being passed,” says Williams. “I think the bottom line is the reluctance to add other people to the protected group.”
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee, where the bill is currently stalled, agrees. He says many in the Legislature believe that there should be fewer protected government workers.
“We brought it to the Senate Judiciary Committee and they were opposed to it,” says Greenleaf, who is himself a co-sponsor of SB 236 and a member of the Senate Republican Caucus to the Board of SEPTA. “I brought it up for a vote and they didn’t want to support it.”
Still, Tartaglione’s office and TWU 234 say the bill’s passage out of committee lies with Greenleaf, who represents parts of Bucks and Montgomery counties. And that’s brought up a litany of other problems.
TWU’s Johnson believes the lack of response has to do with public transportation being, essentially, a Philadelphia issue. “I don’t think people value the jobs that we do,” he says, “especially the politicians who do not reside on the eastern part of Pennsylvania.”
Even the money for on-bus cameras (operational in 60 percent of the bus fleet) and installations has come from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—not from the state.
Kurish adds that calls for any legislation involving mass transit “don’t always go well in the middle part of the state,” which may explain why SB 236 has taken so long to get attention. “Obviously more money for police and safety improvements would help right now,” says Kurish. “But the Legislature’s not in the mood to do anything with transportation funding or public transit funding.”
So the city has made due with the resources they’ve got. In January, the Philadelphia Police Department and the SEPTA Transit Police started getting on buses regularly. Cameras have been beneficial after the fact, but they have been criticized for being used to discipline employees rather than catch criminals. SEPTA has also established training for operators to de-escalate confrontations, which union leaders aren’t happy with.
Johnson and TWU Local 234 Vice President Carl Greer say de-escalation training is essentially a “blame the victim” tactic by the Authority. “Human instinct is to de-escalate any kind of confrontation,” says Greer, calling the training redundant. “[De-escalation training] is SEPTA smoke and mirrors, and … I don’t think that’s going to solve any problem.”
Johnson says SEPTA’s rules for operators essentially handcuff the blue-collar employees from fighting back against unruly passengers’ violent outbursts. “[Bus operators are] the first point of contact. When someone’s mad at SEPTA, they take it out on the operator and the operator is not allowed to get up out of the seat,” he says. While the SEPTA operator is technically allowed to get out of his or her seat in the case of an attack, they often avoid this because once they do, they may be on the defense in an internal investigation into the incident. (Johnson says the first thing operators ask when he visits them in the hospital is: “Am I fired?”) A recent TWU report suggests giving operators “Defense from a Seated Position” courses, which would “teach the operator how to use their legs and feet to avoid the attack” and “eject the attacker” from the bus.
But in the meantime, no one seems to know what should be done to get bus operators mentally ready for the job (and the same route) after they’ve been assaulted.
“We take everyone to work, to school, to their entertainment,” Johnson says. “We are the blood that runs through the veins of the city, and people don’t think about us. We’re nonexistent until some violence occurs.”
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