Time runs out on Nebraska proposal to increase penalties for assaulting a bus driver

By: - April 8, 2022 8:43 pm

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

LINCOLN — Omaha bus driver Joe Boncordo told state lawmakers in February that while behind the wheel he’s been hit, spit on and threatened with a knife.

One woman came at him with a Taser while was driving but “didn’t get me,” he said, though she threatened to kill him or have “my boys” kill him “when you come around again.”

‘Zero protection’

“So what I want you to understand is our job is kind of unique,” Boncordo said. “And we have zero protection. We’re not allowed to carry nothing with us. We can’t carry mace. We can’t carry nothing.”

“Absolutely nothing,” he said.

State Sen. Mike McDonnell, the sponsor of the bill, pledged to bus drivers that he wasn’t giving up.

“There are certain occupations that we need to protect,” McDonnell said. “The men and women who drive these buses are sitting ducks in their seats.”

Unprovoked assaults

Many of the assaults, he said, have been unprovoked, with some sparked by requests for passengers to wear a mask to protect against COVID-19. That mandate was recently extended to April 18 by the Transportation Security Administration.

Currently, assaults on police officers, health care professionals, first responders and state corrections workers are covered under a law that increases the penalty for assault to a Class I misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Such an assault becomes a Class IIIA felony if it involves bodily fluids from a person who knew they suffered from HIV or hepatitis.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Craig Chandler, University Communication)

But adding public transportation drivers to that list ran into opposition on Friday from Omaha Sens. Terrell McKinney and Machaela Cavanaugh.

McKinney said that assaulting a bus driver is already a crime. He blamed police, prosecutors and agencies like Omaha’s Metropolitan Area Transit for “not doing their job” in prosecuting and preventing assaults.

Not always report

Both McKinney and Cavanaugh also questioned the need to increase penalties for offenses that often involve assailants who have mental illnesses or addictions that are elements in the attacks.

Boncordo, an official with the Transportation Workers Union, told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee in February that he often doesn’t report assaults because he runs into the same assailants nearly every day on his bus routes.

Bus drivers, he said, are afraid to report such crimes, because many times they’ve been threatened if they do.

Before time ran out and the Legislature moved on to other bills Friday afternoon, McDonnell tried to convince his colleagues that his proposal should be about the bus drivers, not the assailants.

“This is about the victims,” he said.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.