Muni work­ing to keep driv­ers safe from harm

Hun­dreds of as­saults on op­er­a­tors each year have agency adding new types of se­cu­rity

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BAYAREA - By Gwen­dolyn Wu

The 5-Ful­ton bus had just pulled into the tem­po­rary Trans­bay Ter­mi­nal on Dec. 11 for a three-minute stop.

It wasn’t op­er­a­tor Michelle Moore’s usual drive; she had picked up some ex­tra hours by driv­ing the line that day. A man walked through the front doors of her coach, reached around her safety screen and threw a cup of vomit at her.

“Into my mouth, all over my eyes, it went ev­ery­where,” Moore re­called, shoul­ders shak­ing, at a gath­er­ing of Muni driv­ers on Sept. 7. It was just one of five as­saults Moore has ex­pe­ri­enced since start­ing the job in 2001.

Each year, hun­dreds of ver­bal and phys­i­cal as­saults on Muni’s roughly 2,000 op­er­a­tors are re­ported, ac­cord­ing to the San Fran­cisco Mu­nic­i­pal Trans­porta­tion Agency. At its peak in 2015, there were 768 re­ports of al­ter­ca­tions in­volv­ing Muni op­er­a­tors. So far this year, 316 as­saults have been re­ported.

SFMTA has a task force work­ing to re­duce those num­bers, said spokesman Paul Rose. Changes the agency has im­ple­mented so far, he said, in­clude new buses with driver en­clo­sures and adding silent alarms to im­me­di­ately re­quest San Fran­cisco police.

At the re­cent meet­ing, nearly a dozen driv­ers rat­tled off the num­ber of times they had been as­saulted in their ca­reers — two, three, even seven times. Those as­saults in­cluded death threats, punches to the face and get­ting spit on.

Barry Chamberlain, who worked for Muni for 17 years, was do­ing a rou­tine sweep of his bus on May 20 be­fore clock­ing out for the evening.

Chamberlain tried three times to wake a man

sleep­ing in the back of the 22-Fill­more line.

“I’m not a prob­lem per­son or a prob­lem op­er­a­tor,” Chamberlain said at the meet­ing. “I’m very pro­fes­sional, like all my sis­ters and brothers here now.”

When he re­turned to the front to page dis­patch for help re­mov­ing the man, he saw stars. The man ran up be­hind him, punch­ing, chok­ing and throw­ing him off the coach. Chamberlain uses a wheel­chair as a re­sult.

The pol­icy for op­er­a­tor as­saults is to pull over and call the con­trol cen­ter or Trans­porta­tion Man­age­ment Cen­ter to dis­patch first re­spon­ders and con­tact man­age­ment.

Some op­er­a­tors said that af­ter re­port­ing their as­saults, man­age­ment al­legedly told them that they were the ini­tial ag­gres­sors. Oth­ers said that in­spec­tors told them not to re­port their as­saults.

“Af­ter be­ing vic­tim­ized, abused, they’re be­ing treated like they’re the crim­i­nals,” said Roger Marenco, pres­i­dent of Trans­port Work­ers Union Lo­cal 250-A, which rep­re­sents Muni work­ers.

Rose de­nied that the agency did so and said its pol­icy is to pri­or­i­tize the op­er­a­tor’s safety in the event of an as­sault.

“We would never dis­suade op­er­a­tors from mak­ing an as­sault re­port nor ask op­er­a­tors what they did to pro­voke it,” he said. “We would never force them into ser­vice if they are in­jured. In fact, it is our pol­icy to ask an op­er­a­tor if they need any as­sis­tance, or if they need to go out of ser­vice, even if it is a ver­bal as­sault.”

Driv­ers said the fear of be­ing as­saulted is in­hibit­ing.

“The rea­son why I feel like I can’t func­tion be­hind this seat is be­cause I have no se­cu­rity or safety,” said op­er­a­tor Jay Epps, who bar­ri­caded him­self in­side his 22-Fill­more coach when a man tailed him to the Muni barn.

Epps said the man re­peat­edly threat­ened to kill him.

Op­er­a­tors said that there are sev­eral pos­si­ble so­lu­tions. One sug­ges­tion is get­ting rid of the back door to re­duce the num­ber of fare evaders, who driv­ers say are typ­i­cally the per­pe­tra­tors of phys­i­cal as­saults.

Dis­patch also needs to re­spond bet­ter, other op­er­a­tors said. Press­ing the “pri­or­ity” but­ton, which is sup­posed to im­me­di­ately page dis­patch and get in­spec­tors and police to the scene, is slow and even dan­ger­ous at times.

Muni op­er­a­tor Deanna Lock­ridge, a 12-year vet­eran of the fleet, said that she paged for help once in 2012 and the dis­patcher who called back put the call on the bus’ speaker, alert­ing the sus­pect to her call.

Although the sus­pect was on his way out of the 22-Fill­more at 16th and Mis­sion streets, he started spitting and throw­ing punches at her, Lock­ridge said.

SFMTA also needs to hire more peo­ple to man­age the Trans­porta­tion Man­age­ment Cen­ter, which man­ages 2,000 buses daily, Marenco said. On a tour of the fa­cil­ity, he said that he no­ticed the cen­ter’s state-ofthe-art tech­nol­ogy, but only “three to four” work­ers in­side.

Rose said that SFMTA has 45 em­ploy­ees work­ing in its con­trol cen­ters and is work­ing to in­crease staffing.

Na­tional leg­is­la­tion is also in the works, Rose said. Reps. Grace Napoli­tano, D-Nor­walk (Los An­ge­les County), and John Katko, R-N.Y., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., in­tro­duced the Bus Op­er­a­tor and Pedes­trian Pro­tec­tion Act in June. It di­rects tran­sit agen­cies to de­velop risk-re­duc­tion pro­grams and re­port as­sault data to the Na­tional Tran­sit Data­base.

But with­out im­ple­ment­ing im­me­di­ate changes, op­er­a­tors said, peo­ple will con­tinue driv­ing in fear of be­ing hurt at work.

“It’s not just us that are en­dan­gered on these buses, it’s the pub­lic,” Moore said.

“The rea­son why I feel like I can’t func­tion be­hind this seat is be­cause I have no se­cu­rity or safety.”

Jay Epps, Muni op­er­a­tor

Photos by Noah Berger / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Above: Muni driver Michelle Moore scolds rid­ers aboard the 22-Fill­more. Top: Moore says she has been as­saulted five times since she be­gan driv­ing in 2001.

Photos by Noah Berger / Spe­cial to The Chron­i­cle

Muni driver Michelle Moore re­turns to her bus af­ter a break, above, and drives the 22-Fill­more, be­low. She says a man once threw a up of vomit in her face.

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