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'Need to go further': Saskatoon bus drivers' union pushes back on new transit safety plan

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Saskatoon Transit unveiled a new plan Thursday to address safety concerns on buses and at terminals, but the union representing its drivers says the plan falls short of what's needed right now.

"I have a 15-year-old daughter (and) I won't let her ride the transit system because it's too dangerous. Once she leaves the north end, I'm afraid," Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 615 president Darcy Pederson said.

"Once she gets downtown, anything could happen."

Following a string of three violent attacks in a one-week span last month, Saskatoon Transit partnered with Saskatoon police, the Saskatoon Fire Department and ATU 615 to develop a new safety strategy for both operators and riders.

"All of this with the goal to build for a safer culture here and improve the rider experience and provide more opportunities for people riding the bus to feel safer; more comfortable," Saskatoon Transit director Mike Moellenbeck said.

The transit frontline employee safety plan is centered around nine initiatives — enhancing security, improve internal processes, employee training, augmenting mental health support for employees following an incident and strengthening coordination with emergency services.

Pederson showed up to the news conference at the Civic Operations Centre to see the plan unveiled to media. As he watched at the back of the bus garages, he couldn't help feel a majority of these plans — like running a public marketing campaign — fall short of what's needed.

"They're not an immediate response to what's happening on the busses. We need to go further. And we need to be able to enforce the rules on the bus, keep order on the busses," Pederson said.

Pederson said drivers are seeing weapons like knives and bear mace on buses around the city. Drivers are fearful of being a victim of, or witnessing the next stabbing, swarm attack or fight on their shift.

Assistant fire Chief Yvonne Raymer says her community support team will be visible at bus terminals and on bus routes where incidents have occurred.

She said these fire department staff will take over from the existing community support officers on July 1.

The city is currently in the process of hiring six of these officers who are trained in de-escalation from police and look to prevent violence before it happens. The six new recruits will join six others transferring over from the former program, which was run by of the downtown business improvement district.

"Part of the engagement is de-escalation," Raymer said. "It's being more preventative, having a presence, communicating. It's about having the appropriate response for the situation at hand."

Police will still be called, if needed, since the community officers aren't there for enforcement — another concern of Pederson's.

"Transit has a zero tolerance policy. Let's get someone to enforce it," Pederson said.

The city is looking at installing closed circuit television cameras at the downtown and Confederation Mall terminals to further deter incidents at those locations.

Moellenbeck said some of these resources will go to areas where incidents are reported more often, but he refused to identify which areas experience higher incidents.

Drivers speaking with CTV News said routes 2, 60 and 65 — which cover parts of City Centre, 20th Street, Meadowgreen, 22nd Street and Confederation Park — are known as "hotspots" in the city.

"We need a response now, not six months from now," Pederson said.

Incidents aren't exclusive to any particular part of town. One of the fights on a city bus last month happened on 8th Street, another stabbing happened on Broadway Avenue.

One thing the city won't push is enforcing fares.

A person who doesn't have any money will be welcomed on a bus and treated like any paying customer. Moellenbeck said the city doesn't want to further marginalize vulnerable people who rely on transit to access services they need.

"Fare enforcement is a complex issue," Moellenbeck said. "Incidents occur on the bus, and some may be because the people aren't paying fare and some are also people that are paying fare."

But if they can't afford a fare, why are they on the bus in the first place? That's why Pederson would like to see fare enforcement.

"The riding public would think twice before they got on the bus and caused issues on the bus, especially if we had fare enforcement officers or transit police or police officers on the bus," he said.

Saskatoon Transit is working on some of the initiatives now and will continue to implement others in the coming months.

"Some of these initiatives aren't necessarily going to limit the interaction from happening, but they're definitely going to help with the response to the incident either immediately or afterwards," Moellenbeck said.  

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