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Beyond Chicagoland

Wave of violence against CTA workers highlights the need for Transit Ambassadors

Transit Ambassadors on a BART train in the San Francisco Bay Area. Photo: BART

Update 12/6/21, 9 AM: After the publication of this article, on Saturday, December 4, a 9 p.m., two people randomly beat a CTA bus driver on the 100 block of North Michigan in the Loop, police said. A 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged for the assault.

Streetsblog Chicago has published several articles on the need for effective and humane solutions to the public safety and quality of life issues on the CTA that have become more prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many  Chicagoans have been experiencing economic and mental health crises, and ridership has plummeted. The most pressing challenge is a sharp rise in the violent crime rate, which more than doubled on the 'L' last year.

Perhaps we wouldn't be beating the drum on this topic so frequently if it wasn't for constant reminders of the problem in the headlines. There has been an epidemic of stabbing cases on the transit system this year, and multiple cases of seemingly random violence against passengers. Some of these incidents have been linked to mental illness, so it's somewhat encouraging that the city's 2022 budget includes an additional $6 million for mental health services.

Particularly troubling is the fact that attacks on CTA workers have become commonplace this year. Usually the targets of this aggression are bus drivers, customer assistants, and maintenance personnel, who have the most exposure to the public. But on Wednesday morning, December 1, passengers assaulted an 'L' operator, sending him to the hospital.

According to an ABC Chicago report, the Red Line train left the 63rd Street stop at 8:45 a.m., only to get stuck behind another train on the tracks in the Dan Ryan Expressway median. After about an hour delay, during which passengers were unable to leave the train, riders were understandably frustrated. When the driver left his booth gauge how much longer they'd be delayed, two female passengers got into an argument with him. According to witnesses, when the operator turned to walk away from them, one of the riders kicked him in the back, causing him to fall and hit his head on the door.

The assailants somehow left the train and ran onto the highway, ABC reported. The driver was hospitalized with minor injuries and released in good condition.

This disturbing incident was only the latest attack on a transit employee this year, with two other attacks in recent weeks. Here are some other examples.

    • On June 10 in West Pullman, a man who was angry because a bus driver turned him away away for refusing to wear a mask fired a gun at the bus doors. Fortunately no one was hit.
    • On July 28, a male CTA worker was power-washing the State and Lake station platform when he accidentally sprayed water on female customer, police said. She confronted the employee, and during the ensuing altercation she stabbed him in the side of the neck. The man was hospitalized in fair condition.
    • On November 14, a man got into a fight on the Jackson Blue Line platform, and then went onto the tracks to retrieve a knife and bicycle he had thrown during the fight, prosecutors said. The man then attacked a CTA worker who had witnessed the altercation, slashing him multiple times and breaking his jaw. When police arrived, the assailant grabbed a guitar from the platform and smashed it, then struck an officer with the instrument's neck.
    • On November 26, on the 300 block of North Avenue, a bus driver intervened after a man allegedly tried to pick a woman's pocket. During the ensuing altercation, the suspect stabbed the driver in the hand.

Needless to say, in response to the recent attacks transit union leaders are calling for better protections for their members. Eric Dixon, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents train operators and other employees, told ABC that CTA employees are fearful for their safety at work. "This is an ongoing problem and it's getting out of hand."

The CTA said in a statement in the wake of the Red Line incident, "Assaults on CTA operators are absolutely unacceptable and won't be tolerated. We are working closely with the Chicago Police Department to identify the individuals responsible for this unwarranted attack, and make sure they face the stiffest penalties possible... The safety and security of our employees is our top priority, and we work very closely with CPD to ensure the safest environment possible. The CTA has invested significantly in equipment and systems to keep employees safe, and we're always working with the leadership and members of ATU to enhance those efforts."

Last summer union leaders called for deploying more police or armed guards on the CTA in response to the spike in crime. I'd argue that the current practice of stationing police at locations and times where and when violence has been a recurring issue, such as the Jackson stations on the Red and Blue lines late at night.

Police at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield
Police at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield
Police at the Jackson Blue Line station. Photo: John Greenfield

However, recent incidents have highlighted the increased potential for bloodshed when armed personnel are involved in the enforcement of minor infractions, such as walking between cars, or fare evasion. These tragic cases suggest that adding additional armed personnel to the system isn't the best approach for promoting public safety.

As we've written before, a better strategy would be to pilot an unarmed Transit Ambassadors program. As peer systems like the Bay Area's BART system have shown, these outreach workers are an effective way to deter crime and promote compliance with important rules, such as no smoking on trains, without significantly increasing the potential for violence. These workers receive de-escalation and anti-bias training before deployment.

Some Streetsblog readers have argued that unarmed personnel are useless when violence flares up on transit. But police can't be everywhere, and Transit Ambassadors less expensive, which offers the potential for having a more widespread presence on the system to deter and respond to crime.

When Transit Ambassadors encounter crises where an armed response is warranted, they radio for police backup. But while BART's ambassadors conducted over 12,000 “educational interactions” with riders during the first year of the program, according to the transit agency, out of those incidents, the ambassadors only called police on 132 occasions. That’s only about 1.1 percent of the cases.

Streetsblog will contact local officials in the near future to ask about the possibility of testing such a program in Chicago. After all everyone on the CTA deserves to feel and be safe, especially the transit employees who help keep the city moving.

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