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Legislation that could increase penalties for assault on public transit workers awaits governor’s signature

   

 

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — After five years of pursuing legislation that would increase the punishment for anyone who assaults a Missouri mass transit employee, Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods, said she’s “excited to see it come to fruition” after the bill her amendment was attached to passed during the final day of session.

Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods
Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods

The amendment was part of the transportation omnibus bill, Senate Bill 43, and while the amendment itself passed the House May 7, the legislation as a whole ended up in conference committee. The final committee report went through multiple votes the final day of session before being truly agreed to and finally passed.

The amendment changes the penalty for assault in the first degree to a Class B felony, assault in the second degree to a Class C felony and assault in the third degree to a Class B misdemeanor.

“If you have penalties established and published on the bus so people are aware, hopefully it will diminish the amount of assaults,” Pace told The Missouri Times.

Pace said the first few years she was working predominantly with St. Louis transportation groups on the bill, but after a while she began to hear from people in Kansas City who expressed similar concerns about their employees being assaulted while working.

The successful amendment also was filed by Pace as House Bill 776 earlier during session, which she said just wasn’t able to make it through, but she wasn’t the only one who tried.  Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, also filed Senate Bill 243, which also didn’t make it past committee.

Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City
Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City

“I was pleased to amend a transportation bill sponsored by a Senate colleague that protects our public transit workers by making it a crime to attack these dedicated public employees,” Curls said in an email about the successful amendment. “Working with Rep. Sharon Pace in the House, we have enacted criminal penalties that will hopefully deter unwarranted attacks on these hard working men and women.”

Pace said one reason the bill got through this year while it has struggled the last four was because of one person, former Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, who was term-limited out last year. Schad was the former chair of the House Joint Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety.

“He always tried to get utilities workers included,” Pace said. “I was willing to address the issue, but public transit workers were my priority. He wasn’t amicable to working with both of those employees so we never could come to an agreement.”

Patti Beck, Metro Interim Director of Communication, said the St. Louis Metro Transit system was very grateful for the passage of the amendment.

“Our number one priority at Metro Transit is the safety of our customers and our employees,” she said. “We see this as welcome news and hope the governor signs it.”

During their current fiscal year, which ends June 30, Beck said there have been 17 assaults on Metro bus operators. During fiscal year 2012, there were 26 assaults, and during 2011, 31 assaults.

Photo from metrostlouis.org.
Photo from metrostlouis.org.

While the report Beck had didn’t break down the specific types of assault, she said those could range from spitting on drivers to making physical contact with them. “Our bus drivers are out there on the front lines dealing with the public every day,” she said.

Metro Transit has 400 busses running in the St. Louis area, and their employees — some part time and some full — work about an average of eight-hour shifts, she added.

She said the assault issue is really centered around the bus operators rather than the Metrolink operators, as they have more protection and less exposure to the public. To her knowledge, Beck said she is unaware of any assault against Metrolink operators.

“Increased penalties will, we feel, send a good message to our community,” Beck said, stressing the Transit’s concern about their customer’s and employee’s safety.

To contact Ashley Jost, email ashley@themissouritimes.com, or via Twitter at @ajost.