Bill to increase penalties for assault on public bus drivers debated

A bill that would increase the penalty for assault on a public transportation driver was discussed on general file April 8.

Sen. Mike McDonnell
Sen. Mike McDonnell

Under current law, a person who assaults an officer, emergency responder, state correctional employee or health care professional faces enhanced penalties. LB661, introduced during the 2021 session by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, would add public transportation drivers to that list of public safety workers.

McDonnell said assaults on bus drivers occur weekly. Drivers are punched, beaten and spit on while performing their job, he said, yet offenders rarely are reprimanded or charged because current penalties are taken too lightly.

“There have been numerous instances of horrible assaults on these [bus] drivers while in the scope of the basic duties of his or her daily employment,” McDonnell said. “In these examples, there was no provocation — these men and women are simply doing their jobs and providing a service to the citizens of their community.”

An increase in the penalty for assault on a public transportation driver would send a message to offenders and provide repercussions that would be more of a deterrent than the current “slap on the hand,” he said.

Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist spoke in support of the bill. She said bus drivers who represent cities deserve respect and should be protected. Currently, offenses against them rarely are charged, she said.

“This is an issue of respect, and if you work for the city of Lincoln or the city of Omaha [and] you have to sit in your seat with no recourse of someone beating you up — whether [by someone] with a mental illness, whether they have a weapon, whether they are in their clear mind or whether they are on drugs — [they] should be fined,” Geist said.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney opposed the bill, saying people who ride buses regularly — often people of color, low-income individuals and those with mental illness — would face a felony prosecution for any sort of incident that occurs on public transportation, regardless of the level of harm, under the proposal.

It’s already a felony to commit aggravated assault, McKinney said, and LB661 would increase penalties arbitrarily and would put the level of protection afforded to bus drivers on par with police officers.

“While not intended, this bill is the kind of legislation that contributes to racial disparity in prosecution and punishment,” he said. “This bill will help to increase our prison numbers and the disproportionate number of people of color in prison.”

Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha also spoke in opposition to LB661. Cavanaugh said many people who commit crimes against bus drivers are mentally ill and in need of mental health services, not prosecution and punishment.

The Legislature moved to the next item on the agenda without voting on the bill’s advancement. LB661 is unlikely to be debated again this session.

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