Darin Pavek has been driving the Route 5 bus overnight for Metro Transit for the last decade. When passengers board the bus heading to the Mall of America, Pavek looks them in the eye and greets them. Most reciprocate. Some get hostile.
Last December a drunk man upset at being asked to pay the $1.75 fare head-butted Pavek after he pulled into the Lake Street transit station in Minneapolis. In his time on the route, Pavek has also been swept up in fights on the bus and even had some passengers try to spit on him.
It's those lesser assaults that are the target of a new law going into effect on Thursday that will increase the penalties for what used to be misdemeanor assaults on transit drivers. Metro Transit officials, who pushed for the law, say they're worried that lesser assaults, like throwing a bottle or spitting on a driver, will lead to an accident that harms passengers or other bystanders.
'EVERYONE ON THAT BUS AT RISK'
The law adds transit operators to the list of occupations, including police and corrections employees, that are protected by tougher penalties for simple assaults. Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said bus drivers deserve the new protections because they're constantly interacting with the public and often are responsible for passenger safety.
"If I throw a cup of coffee on you and burn you, that's clearly some permanent injuries possible there. But if I spit on you, the argument oftentimes legally has been, 'What's the harm?'" Harrington said. "What we wanted to articulate for the Legislature is that the harm is that it not only puts the driver at risk, but it puts everyone on that bus at risk."
Metro Transit recorded 55 misdemeanor assaults against drivers last year, 37 of which included a passenger spitting on a driver, a special focus of the legislation. Under the new law, those actions will be defined as a gross misdemeanor and could be punished by up to one year imprisonment and a $3,000 fine.
Harrington said the agency wanted the level of charges available to reflect the actual damage that could occur in an assault on a bus driver. "Someone spits in your face, your natural reaction to that is to turn away, to cover up," Harrington said. "Passengers thrown about in the case of a driver that loses control of the bus, parked cars, people walking down the street -- the potential for that harm sounds really significant."
WORKING CLOSER WITH POLICE
Under Harrington, the Metro Transit Police Department has made a priority of tracking down and charging suspects who assault drivers. The department managed to make 11 arrests in 17 felony assault cases last year. Out of the reported 55 misdemeanor assaults in 2012, the department has made 17 arrests.
Harrington said the department is also training drivers to work more closely with police. They've also installed cameras and publicly posted signs listing penalties for infractions, including those for assaulting a driver.
"We hope that people understand that spitting on drivers, assaulting drivers is taken very seriously, and that the chances they're going to be caught are really very high," Harrington said. "This is not going to be something that you can say is just stupid drunken behavior -- it has a cost."
Pavek, who describes his job as driving people who are almost like his friends to their jobs, acknowledged that most of his interactions with passengers are friendly. He thinks the new law could help drivers avoid some potentially dangerous distractions that could escalate into more serious assaults like the one he experienced last December.
"Once it starts getting out on the buses that this person or individual got a gross misdemeanor just for spitting on someone, they're going to think twice," Pavek said.