What Now?

Seattle's police chief considers the aftermath of McLaughlin's murder.

Mark MClaughlin's Epitaph has slowly emerged: Killed by a madman, not a transit system. The evidence forces the conclusion that the bus driver's instant murder and soaring crash of his 60-foot articulated Metro bus off the Aurora Bridge was an aberration as complex as the man who caused it, the enigmatic Silas Cool.

"This is a man who obviously had a tortured mind and for whatever reason decided to do something that left a whole lot of people in a whole lot of pain," Police Chief Norm Stamper was saying last week, huddled against the cold outside Key Arena. He waved and nodded at drivers and mourners in the lumbering procession of 70 buses arriving for McLaughlin's public memorial. "We'll never understand that, taking the bus driver's life, what the man's intentions were."

Slender, steely-eyed, 43, Cool came and went without notice by neighbors and survived on a lean stipend from his elderly New Jersey parents. They thought he was fine. So did a few acquaintances. None could explain why he carried a small handgun beneath his raincoat.

Awful as the incident was, what didn't happen was equally stunning. Had Cool delayed only seconds, farther onto the bridge, the bus could have taken the bus, its passengers, and a line of cars into the Ship Canal below. Did he have that in mind? Off the bridge at midspan is the historical, 175-foot route of Aurora's suicidal jumpers. Did Silas Cool plan a signature funeral with a busload of strangers? Or was it all some kind of mistake, the mildly psychotic loner having an episode, angry about a schedule stop, pulling his gun and mindlessly jerking the trigger, then killing himself when he realized what he'd done?

Wasted conjecture, the chief said. "I think when you're dealing with someone who is suffering as much as this individual was, who would take out another life in addition to his own and then God knows how many might actually follow in the wake of his action—well, to me that's a kind of separate issue from the everyday incivility and misconduct on these buses."

McLaughlin was the first bus driver to die here since the 1960s, although the list of injured and assaulted over the decades is in the thousands. More than a few have stared into the barrel of a gun, while others have been held hostage by hijackers—including one who briefly hijacked a trolley until discovering it was attached to wires.

STILL, METRO IS ONE of the safer systems in the US, thanks to newer security measures and increased policing, with more to come. The chief believes that McLaughlin's potential legacy is to make it even better, and that the challenge lies not in improving the system but in improving the individual passenger.

"What I'm hearing," Stamper said, "is that the biggest threat to security on these buses is what they call fare jumpers—people getting on and feeling that they're somehow entitled to a free ride."

The last fatal Seattle bus-driver shooting was spurred by robbery and prompted the installation of secure fare boxes. Now it is the ride itself that is stolen, and though drivers are told to ask only once that a jumper pay, even that can bring serious confrontations. Some drivers are worried enough to carry weapons illegally, preferring to risk their jobs rather than their lives. "I know of two drivers who have carried guns," a driver said at Key Arena last week. "I've carried a knife from time to time. You look for something—a club, a solid object—to keep by you." Worried riders have armed themselves as well.

But the rider has a much better weapon, Stamper argued. "It's a criminal and a civility issue. The drivers were successful a couple years ago getting the Legislature to make it gross misdemeanor to assault a driver on a bus. Used to be there had to be at least one other passenger on the bus in addition to the offender and the bus driver. I mean, these are big, big machines, and we've seen the damage that can happen when there is an accident. I'm saying you can't make these threats go away under any circumstances. But citizens can create a kind of atmosphere in which it's less likely that individuals will do the kinds of things we see daily on the Metro buses. I think we need to stop averting our eyes, stop pretending we don't see people committing minor transgressions, violations, all around us. I'm not advocating reckless intervention or heroic action, because that's usually foolish and dangerous—people immediately start talking about vigilantism if you're merely talking about citizen patrols, neighbors looking out for one another, even block watch activity gets criticized as being somehow intrusive—and I just reject that out of hand."

He paused, watching as a wreathed bus pulled up with McLaughlin's picture on its side. "The fact is, there are hundreds upon hundreds of these minor transgressions every day in the city, and we, the cops, can't possibly enforce action on all of those. But we can as a society and a community start taking some action that will alter the pattern of behavior over time. It starts there, with one person."

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