Rider at­tacks on bus driv­ers a grow­ing con­cern for Metro

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LUZ LAZO

Metrobus driv­ers trans­port an av­er­age of 465,000 pas­sen­gers a day in the Washington re­gion, and in­creas­ingly, of­fi­cials say, a num­ber of those riders are tak­ing out their frus­tra­tions on bus op­er­a­tors.

Driv­ers have been spat on, slapped and even stabbed, and at least one driver was shocked with a Taser, ac­cord­ing to re­ports. Phys­i­cal as­saults and ver­bal abuse are tak­ing a toll on the pro­duc­tiv­ity and work at­ten­dance of those at the fore­front of the na­tion’s sixth-largest bus net­work, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent fed­eral re­view of Metro that iden­ti­fies the ris­ing num­ber of as­saults on bus op­er­a­tors as the great­est safety con­cern for Metrobus.

Metro, po­lice and union of­fi­cials say they do not take the as­saults on the work­ers lightly, but for the be­lea­guered transit

agency, which is un­der fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion for a fa­tal Jan­uary smoke in­ci­dent and other safety and fi­nan­cial is­sues, tak­ing con­trol of the as­sault prob­lem is one in a num­ber of chal­lenges.

“We are not at a point where we can put a cop on ev­ery bus or on ev­ery train, but we can use them very smartly,” Metro board Chair­man Mor­timer L. Downey said, not­ing a new strat­egy the agency is test­ing to tackle the prob­lem. “It is our obli­ga­tion to do what we can.”

As­saults against bus driv­ers in­creased nearly 37 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to a Fed­eral Transit Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­port that found there have been 175 as­saults on bus op­er­a­tors since 2012. The re­port crit­i­cized Metro as “not ad­e­quately” ad­dress­ing the as­saults and said “the agency has strug­gled with es­tab­lish­ing a co­or­di­nated and co­he­sive ap­proach.”

Metro’s ef­forts to ad­dress the prob­lem have been con­strained, the FTA re­port said, by chronic fare-box mal­func­tions — which can lead to driver-pas­sen­ger dis­putes, and vi­o­lence. Fare-box mal­func­tions are so com­mon that some pas­sen­gers be­come ac­cus­tomed to rid­ing free and balk at hav­ing to pay when the boxes are in work­ing or­der.

Metro is un­der fed­eral or­ders to ex­pe­dite a strat­egy that gets to the root of the prob­lem and in­cor­po­rates train­ing, po­lice re­sources and com­mu­nity out­reach.

Of­fi­cials with Metro oper­a­tions and the po­lice say ef­forts to ad­dress vi­o­lence against bus driv­ers were in place be­fore the FTA re­port was re­leased last month. The transit agency launched a pi­lot pro­gram in late April tar­get­ing the most trou­bled ar­eas of the bus sys­tem, which cov­ers 1,500 square miles in the Dis­trict, Mary­land and Vir­ginia. As part of the 90-day pi­lot, driv­ers are be­ing trained in deal­ing with dif­fi­cult pas­sen­gers, and po­lice pres­ence on buses has been in­creased, of­fi­cials said.

Be­cause many of the as­saults are the re­sult of fare-eva­sion dis­putes, author­i­ties are fo­cus­ing on tar­get­ing fare evaders, Metro Transit Po­lice Chief Ron­ald Pav­lik said. That means, he said, is­su­ing warn­ings first to dis­cour­age a cul­ture of not pay­ing, and then fin­ing of­fend­ers.

Among the most com­mon abuses that driv­ers ex­pe­ri­ence are be­ing spat on, punched, slapped or hav­ing ob­jects thrown at them. In some cases, youths throw bricks or rocks at buses from the side of the road, break­ing win­dows and in­jur­ing driv­ers or pas­sen­gers.

“Op­er­a­tors are threat­ened ev­ery day, and it is a rough job,” said Earl Beatty, a vet­eran bus op­er­a­tor who over­sees cases of as­saults on Metrobus driv­ers as the busi­ness agent for Amal­ga­mated Transit Union Lo­cal 689. Even when the as­saults are con­sid­ered mi­nor, they can trau­ma­tize driv­ers, he said.

“Spit­ting on a per­son is the most de­grad­ing thing that you could do. It af­fects the morale, it af­fects a per­son’s dig­nity,” he said. “It’s un­ac­cept­able for some­one to come on your job and to­tally vi­o­late you just be­cause they may have a dif­fer­ence with you or the sys­tem.”

Last year, an irate pas­sen­ger pep­per-sprayed a Metrobus driver on a No. 94 bus in South­east and es­caped at a bus stop. In late Jan­uary, a 14-year-old boy aboard an E4 bus en route to the Fort Tot­ten Metro sta­tion in North­east used a Taser on a fe­male driver with­out provo­ca­tion, po­lice said. The driver was taken to the hos­pi­tal. The youth was ar­rested and charged with as­sault with a dan­ger­ous weapon.

More re­cently, the driver of a W2 bus trav­el­ing along Alabama Av­enue in South­east on a Sun­day morn­ing was at­tacked by six young men who did not want to pay their $1.75 fares. The driver was taken to a hos­pi­tal with se­vere bruises and back and neck pain, he and union lead­ers said. Be­cause he had felt threat­ened and vul­ner­a­ble in his seat, he left the ve­hi­cle. The driver was later fired af­ter seven years on the job. Union lead­ers said Metro ar­gued that the driver could have han­dled the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently. Metro would not com­ment on the case.

The union says some driv­ers do not re­port in­ci­dents out of fear that Metro will not take their side and will dis­ci­pline them in­stead.

Lynn Bow­er­sox, Metro’s as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for cus­tomer ser­vice, said at a re­cent Metro board meet­ing that bus op­er­a­tors un­der pres­sure of­ten mis­han­dle sit­u­a­tions.

“Eighty times last year, our em­ploy­ees made the wrong choice,” she said. “They con­fronted a fare evader. And 80 times they were spat upon, slapped, punched and twice stabbed as a re­sult of farec­ol­lec­tion dis­putes that es­ca­lated.”

Metro of­fi­cials say they hope the pi­lot pro­gram, launched in part­ner­ship with the union, will ad­dress the con­cerns of the work­force and en­sure the safety of all pas­sen­gers aboard buses.

When some­one at­tacks a bus op­er­a­tor, the per­son not only as­saults the driver, which is se­ri­ous enough, but also en­dan­gers ev­ery pas­sen­ger on the bus, Pav­lik said.

Po­lice said they are fo­cus­ing on ed­u­cat­ing mem­bers of the public about re­spect­ing Metro work­ers and prop­erty and pay­ing their share to ride. Po­lice in uni­form and plain­clothes are rid­ing buses on routes where there are re­peat of­fend­ers.

But bus op­er­a­tors com­plain that too few of­fi­cers are as­signed to the sys­tem. Of the transit po­lice force’s 490 of­fi­cers, the vast ma­jor­ity are as­signed to Metro­rail. Metro would say only that “sev­eral dozen” of­fi­cers pa­trol the bus sys­tem daily. Three years ago, the agency said two dozen of­fi­cers were as­signed to Metrobus.

Driv­ers and union lead­ers say they have re­cently no­ticed a greater po­lice pres­ence in ar­eas such as Metrobus’s Shep­herd Park­way di­vi­sion, which serves South­west and South­east Washington, ar­eas where as­saults have been a prob­lem. But sev­eral op­er­a­tors, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity out of con­cern about ret­ri­bu­tion, said they fear the en­hanced se­cu­rity will dis­ap­pear at theendof the pi­lot pro­gram.

“When you have a po­lice depart­ment that cov­ers 2,500 bus op­er­a­tors and you only have a few of­fi­cers as­signed to them, that is a disad­van­tage to our op­er­a­tors and puts us in a vul­ner­a­ble po­si­tion,” Beatty, the union of­fi­cial, said.

Metro of­fi­cials say that with328 routes in a net­work over 1,500 square miles, the agency can­not have of­fi­cers ev­ery­where but de­ploys po­lice re­sources ac­cord­ing to crime trends and feed­back from bus op­er­a­tors. All buses have cam­eras, and some buses are equipped with shields that close like gates af­ter op­er­a­tors are buck­led into their seats, pro­vid­ing a bar­rier be­tween driv­ers and pas­sen­gers. Metro said it is ready to test another safety fea­ture: a mon­i­tor near the fare box that will show p as­sen­gers as they are get­ting on a bus that they are on cam­era.

As part of the pi­lot pro­gram tar­get­ing fare evaders, po­lice are mon­i­tor­ing fare-col­lec­tion data to iden­tify the routes with the most fare jumpers. The most trou­bled spots are in the eastern part of the Dis­trict and in por­tions of ad­ja­cent Prince Ge­orge’s County, transit po­lice said. Those also are the ar­eas where more as­saults on driv­ers oc­cur, ac­cord­ing to Metro.

When pas­sen­gers refuse to pay, driv­ers can record the fares as un­paid, and they are trained not to con­front fare evaders, Metro of­fi­cials said.

If caught, an of­fender can be fined an amount be­tween $10 and $100, depend­ing on the ju­ris­dic­tion, Pav­lik said. The agency is­sued 5,000 tick­ets for fare eva­sion last year, he said. Adult of­fend­ers can get crim­i­nal records for fare eva­sion. In Vir­ginia, Pav­lik said, judges have sent re­peat of­fend­ers to jail for a week­end. In the Dis­trict, vi­o­la­tors face an en­hanced penalty when a bus driver is as­saulted.

Metro of­fi­cials say they ex­pect to see re­sults from the en­hanced en­force­ment, which is cost­ing the agency $500,000. So far this year, eight fewer as­saults have oc­curred than in the same pe­riod last year, transit po­lice said. Metro of­fi­cials said they hope also to dis­cuss best prac­tices in sys­tems across the coun­try and de­cide this sum­mer on a per­ma­nent strat­egy.

“I don’t think three months will ac­tu­ally make the prob­lem go away for­ever,” Downey said, re­fer­ring to the 90-day pi­lot. If this strat­egy doesn’t lead to im­prove­ments, he said, “we have to fig­ure out what to do to make it suc­cess­ful. If it is suc­cess­ful, we need to de­ter­mine what to do to make it a con­tin­u­ous ef­fort.”

“Spit­ting on a per­son is the most de­grad­ing thing that you could do. It af­fects the morale, it af­fects a per­son’s dig­nity.” Earl Beatty, vet­eran bus driver and mem­ber of the ex­ec­u­tive board of Amal­ga­mated Transit Union Lo­cal 689

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

A bus draws to a stop on 16th Street NWn­ear U Street in­Wash­ing­ton. On some city routes, driv­ers are at risk of ver­bal abuse and vi­o­lence.

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