(The Center Square) – Lawmakers adopted a proposal Wednesday to study creating a new offense against public transit employees as the number of assaults against them is increasing.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. DeAnna Hodges, R-Springdale, would make aggravated assault against a public transit employee a Class C felony with a mandatory fine of $10,000 and carry a minimum sentence of at least 90 days.
Public transit officials told the House and Senate Judiciary Committee they’ve seen increased incidents of assault on public transit workers in recent years.
Joel Gardner, who serves as executive director for the Ozark Regional Transit Authority, said he has been assaulted multiple times in the line of his work, and each case he was a part of, the defendant was able to plea down the charge.
Adam Waddell. director of Razorback Transit for the University of Arkansas said the bill would hold people responsible while offering justice to public transit workers who are attacked.
“We’re seeing an increased number of incidences of assault and varying degrees of interactions between the public and our staff. Some of our drivers come across thousands of passengers a day,” Waddell said.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, asked about the purpose of adding public transit employees to the existing statute.
“What y’all are amending was put into code a couple years ago in response to public disturbances and riots and it was designed to apply to first responders specifically because they were dealing with riot situations,” Collins said.
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said he anticipated adding to the statute when the initial bill was passed for first responders but asked how it differed from someone charged with aggravated assault.
“Aggravated assault is against the law,” said Clark. “What does this do that our normal aggravated assault laws, in y’all’s eyes, don’t already do?”
Prosecutor Coordinator Bob McNab said the bill would add different elements that aren’t included in a regular aggravated assault case and would increase the penalty as aggravated assault is a Class D felony and the bill would make aggravated assault against a public transit employee a Class C felony.
Being able to post signage in public transit settings warning about the consequences of assaulting a worker would be a deterrent, said City of Fort Smith Transit Director Ken Savage.
“Serving as a transit director for more than 24 years, I’m seeing an uptick in agitation among passengers in the public life. While the majority of our transportation trips are event free and in alignment with our mission, it takes only a few undesirable occurrences to jeopardize the safety of our employees, passengers, and with a 40-foot bus, the public in general. Passengers are at the mercy of the bus driver,” Savage said.