MTA workers get traction in Albany to impose jail time for spitting assailants

Spitting assaults Mark Hallum
TWU Local 100 President Tony Utano with Bronx District Attorney Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark.
Photo by Mark Hallum

Transit workers keeping the system going for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority believe they finally have traction among Albany legislators for a bill that would make spitting on bus drivers and subway conductors a misdemeanor.

After over a year since a press conference that pleaded for action from lawmakers, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 has enlisted the support of Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens district attorneys in imposing harsher legal action against those who spit on transit employees, pandemic or no pandemic.

Under the legislation, which is gaining support in committees, people found guilty of spitting assaults can serve up to a year in prison.

“This is about respect. Okay, when the pandemic hit, we were out there providing a service to this city… We lost many members to this virus and many of our members got sick” Utano said. “We are tired of getting spit on and not knowing whether we have the coronavirus, AIDS, tuberculosis, it’s got to stop. We’re not here to get beat up. We’re here to provide a service. Now, it seems that we now have police down there. They said they’re going to deploy 644 police. Yeah, that’s a good thing. We need more.”

According to Bronx DA Darcel Clark, bringing people experiencing mental illness who perhaps do the most spitting into the criminal justice system may not be the ideal, but it is one avenue for receiving social services. Either way, she believes that the needs of the mentally ill should be met before spitting instances occur.

“The way the law is written now is it’s a violation, so unless a police officer actually saw it, they couldn’t do anything. It’s just a summons. But by elevating it to a misdemeanor now, the police don’t have to witness it, you have a witness who experienced it,” Clark said. “Spitting on someone is disgusting. Especially despicable during this hazardous time where it can lead to very serious health consequences.”

Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez recognized the counterintuitive nature of this law to the modern movement among district attorneys to reduce the level of punishment for most crimes to prevent recidivism but said that the current penalties are not giving cops enough room to investigate and bring assailants to justice.

“It’s not very often that you hear DAs asking increased penalties for crimes, normally we think they are enough penalties in the law for us to keep people safe and protect our community. This is an area where we know it’s not,” Gonzalez said. “It’s unacceptable that someone could physically assault you, spit on you, and a police officer has to tell you there’s nothing they can do because they did not witness it. So when we asked for this to be an increased penalty, raising it to an aggravated harassment charge, it’s so that law enforcement can hold people accountable for assaulting our transit workers.”

Interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg said the agency is asking for the bill to be included in the upcoming state budget as the agency has taken some matters into their own hands with better surveillance technology and increasing the police presence.

Recently, the MTA decided to lift the hiring freeze on the 500 new police officers it intended to hire in the beginning of 2020, but was cut short due to financial fallout from COVID-19.

“The MTA is grateful to the city’s five DAs for standing united with us and our dedicated employees in calling for stricter penalties for spitting on transit workers – a disgusting and cowardly act of violence against selfless heroes who have kept New York moving throughout this pandemic,” Feinberg said. “The MTA has taken extensive measures to protect workers such as aggressively tracking and reporting these incidents, expanding the subway security camera network and successfully calling for additional NYPD officers to patrol the transit system – but more needs to be done by way of this legislation and an additional 1,000 NYPD officers in the system.”

A number of committee chairs in both houses of government in Albany are behind the bill including assembly members Amy Paulin, Latoya Joyner, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Peter Abbate, Robert Rodriguez and Carmen De La Rosa. In the senate chamber, there are senators Tim Kennedy, Leroy Comrie, Jeffrey Dinowitz and Andrew Gounardes, according to Local 100.

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