Spitting and punching: Attacks on TriMet drivers surge

As new data pinpoint where bus drivers are attacked the most, TriMet is working to make operators safer. But some say the agency could do more. 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Passenger-on-passenger crime on Portland’s buses and MAX lines has plummeted in the past few years, but that trend hasn’t transferred over to operators, who have actually been attacked more year-over-year since 2014. 

New data shows drivers are more likely to be attacked on certain bus lines and during certain times of the day.

It’s a troubling trend that transit agencies across the country are experiencing, according to TriMet’s executive director of safety and security, Harry Saporta.

“The issue is one that’s really a national issue and it has been for some time,” Saporta said. “We take this very seriously because we don’t want any of our employees harmed.”

Tap to launch interactive map

What the data shows

In Portland, TriMet operators have been attacked 48 times between September 2014 and August 2016. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of trips TriMet operators make every day, but as time goes on, attacks are becoming more frequent.

Between September and December 2014, there were three attacks. In 2015, there were 20 attacks. And between January 1 and August 31 of 2016, there were 26 attacks.

The bus lines with the most attacks were the 4, 6, 71 and 72. Attacks were most frequent between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., with very few happening between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when service stops, and from the start of service at 5 a.m. to 8 a.m.

The only two attacks after 10 p.m. happened on Line 12, in Southwest Portland. MAX operators were more protected – only one MAX driver has reported being attacked since September 2014.

Out of the 48 attacks, 14 were fourth-degree assaults, which means the driver was injured or in significant pain after being attacked, according to Sara Westbrook, TriMet’s commander of transit police.

“An assault 4 is when you not only get struck, but you are significantly hurt – injured or in a lot of pain. They are disabled in some way for a period of time,” she said.

Most of the attacks were over fares, which drivers have no control over because they can’t access the fare box or give out change. It’s also not their job to enforce fares. Still, drivers have been spit on, threatened with knives, shoved, hit, scratched, and body slammed because someone didn’t want to pay to ride the bus.

Spitting is apparently a popular form of retaliation against drivers. Nearly half of the attacks involved operators being spit on.

“It’s probably a daily occurrence,” said TriMet bus operator Gary Hernandez.

Hernandez has been driving buses for TriMet for the past nine years and says he loves his job, however, the uptick in attacks has alarmed drivers.

“I like my office view from behind the wheel that changes from one minute to the next. I wouldn’t consider doing anything else for the company,” Hernandez said. “But this is an epidemic.”


A TriMet driver was assaulted in April 2016

Why are attacks increasing?

Across the country, transit operators are being attacked at a more frequent rate. Data shows many of the TriMet attacks were due to fare evasion, but they were also triggered by arguments, disturbances, drinking, or for no reason at all. Ridership has remained relatively stagnant, so it’s not the city’s booming population that’s impacting attacks.

There’s no way to pinpoint exactly why attacks have increased but TriMet leaders have some educated guesses.

“There are a lot of mental health issues out there,” said spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt. “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘You know what, I’m not sure I want to pay for that.”

Some riders have been angered because TriMet does not offer change.

“It’s pretty standard that you need exact change to ride a bus,” Altstadt said. She noted the TriMet app and ticket machines lets users pay electronically and riders will be able to use credit cards on buses next year.

Saporta said some drivers may unknowingly escalate a situation with a disgruntled rider.

“What may happen is that under some circumstances that those who feel like they’re being personally confronted, that they may begin to escalate the dialogue and the situation itself,” he said.

What TriMet is doing about attacks

Trying to prevent attacks against drivers is difficult and TriMet’s limited resources make it even more so. If transit police focus on protecting one line, an attack may occur somewhere else.

“It’s a little like finding a needle in the haystack,” said Commander Westbrook.

Right now, there is one TriMet police car on patrol for every 68 buses, and a handful of officers are usually riding a bus. Saporta says the budget to significantly increase police presence isn’t there.

TriMet is listening to drivers about what else would help, as well as consulting national reports on driver safety.

The agency just bought three Plexiglas barriers to test on buses starting in the next couple of months. The $3,000 barriers are one proven way to protect drivers, but outfitting all 650-plus buses with barriers will take a big chunk of money and likely a few years.

A barrier similar to what TriMet will test in buses

The agency is also training operators and other TriMet staff on ways they can deescalate aggravated riders.

“We want to give them more tools, so to speak, in order to deal with a variety of issues,” Saporta said.

In addition, TriMet is backing a statewide bill that will make assaulting any transit employee a felony, instead of just ones who are operating a bus or MAX line.   

Hernandez said those components are a good first step but what would really help is more staff on buses, such as fare enforcers and the “rider advocates” TriMet used to pay to ride the bus and interact with other riders. TriMet said rider advocates did not reduce incidents.

“There’s no security presence anywhere on the bus,” Hernandez said. “On any given day or night, people get on the bus and they can pretty much do whatever they want.”

If a driver is attacked, he or she can call for support and transit police are pinged. According to Altstadt, police come as quickly to serious situations involving drivers as they would to any other emergency call – on average, for Portland police, in about six minutes. Hernandez said it usually takes longer because TriMet has to decide the level of severity then call dispatch.

“Nine times out of 10, before anybody gets there [the attacker is] gone,” he said.

Arrests have been made in less than half the reported operator attacks. TriMet acknowledges that once assailants leave the bus, it’s very difficult to track them down.

While TriMet’s approach to protecting operators may be up for debate, both drivers and TriMet leadership agree the one factor they cannot control is the public’s actions, and that’s the one that would help the most.

“[Drivers] should be treated with common courtesy. They’re out there providing a vital service. People need to follow the rules,” Altstadt said.

Hernandez concurred.

“I would like the public to know that we operators are doing our job and all we want to do is earn our pay and give the best customer service that we can give,” he said. “We would like the riding public to treat us the way we treat them, with dignity and respect.”

Interactive map created by KGW Art Director Jeff Patterson

Published December 7, 2016 


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