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Another One Rides the Bus

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They've been hit with hammers and stabbed with umbrellas, but bus drivers are expected to act like the customer is always right

By Becki Bell

OFTEN TOUTED as the answer to gridlock, air pollution and future fuel shortages, public transit is supposed to solve the problems of our commute-dependent culture. In addition to the elimination of "spare-the-air" days and endless radio traffic reports, in the idealistic world of public transportation the smiling, friendly people who dominate the pages of transit brochures would always be the same ones to take the seat beside you, and the buses themselves would be safe, pleasant places to spend a late-night commute or a trip across town.

That ideal was proven unlikely in early September when three armed men commandeered a Santa Clara County bus, demanded money from its passengers and pistol-whipped a woman who had nothing to give them. The incident was followed later that month by an on-board fight that left several people injured. Transit authorities called the events "isolated," and insisted that there was no developing trend.

According to one driver, however, the "trend" was well developed even before the two September incidents. "I have personally been assaulted with a brick, I have had knives pulled ... we had a female driver who was assaulted; a guy whipped her with her own belt. Another time she was stabbed."

Loretta Springer, recording and financial secretary for the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 265 (ATU), recounts similar stories of drivers in Santa Clara County who have been threatened or assaulted on the job, including one tale of a passenger who punched an operator because he was asked to discard his drink before boarding. "One operator has even reported a man exposing an Uzi on a bus," says Springer, who is a member of the union's safety committee. "We also have instances where drivers have been stalked. In fact, we've had to reassign an operator ... because someone had threatened to kill him."

STORIES ARE consistent among the drivers themselves, as is their desire to remain anonymous­a preference that reflects the attitude of management, whose words and actions often suggest that violence aboard Santa Clara County buses are the operators' problems, not the district's.

"I don't think that violence is one of those spontaneous things, that somebody decides to get on a bus and assault somebody," contends Norma Newman, public information officer for Santa Clara County Transportation Agency. "Most of our training--if it's not from an operational standpoint--is customer-service oriented, and based on that positive take with our passengers. Most of our drivers are not assaulted by people, and there's no need primarily for them to feel that they have to defend themselves."

Newman later said she had not intended to imply that bus operators are responsible for being attacked, yet the drivers themselves often describe feeling blamed and abandoned by a district that is supposed to be looking out for their safety. "County transit management completely washed their hands of it," says one driver of his own assault case. "They never approached me. I didn't approach them either. I knew I'd get no help from them."

Another driver claims that he was actually disciplined by his supervisor because he chose to physically remove a passenger who had assaulted him while he was driving and was threatening to strike a female passenger. Other Transportation Agency operators, including one who was beaten and stabbed repeatedly in the throat and chest with the end of an umbrella, have faced similar disciplinary consequences.

"Transit supervision never backs you up," says the driver whose assailant was carrying a brick. "They see the passenger who assaults you as a victim."

Newman, however, claims that the district does offer help, and that it is up to the drivers themselves to accept it. "We have a counseling service to allow these people to try to come to some kind of solution with whatever problem they're having," she says. "There are a lot of support systems that are in place. They are all offered, but we can not make anyone go see a counselor or go see a therapist."

THE CURRENT attitude of the district toward assaults on transit operators may have stemmed from a series of incidents in the mid to late 1980s and early '90s categorized as "driver misbehavior," including the 1986 conviction of a Santa Clara County transit driver who sexually assaulted his 17-year-old passenger, and a 1988 scuffle between a driver and a passenger that ended when a driver stabbed his passenger in the arm with a pocket-knife.

Such incidents, though very rare in Santa Clara County, comprise at least a partial explanation for the agency's strict rules governing driver-passenger confrontations--including a prohibition on any behavior that can be interpreted as "aggressive." But aggression, say drivers, could be the label used to describe an action as simple as getting out from behind the steering wheel or exiting the bus.

Drivers and the ATU contend that that district's training procedures on how to handle angry or unruly passengers does not extend far enough beyond simple verbal defusing of the situation. Drivers are supposed to preclude violence from happening simply by reacting reasonably; a tactic that serves the district's policy of "customer service" but does little to protect a driver from a passenger who does not respond in the anticipated manner.

The same "customer is always right" attitude that governs the transportation agency's handbooks is also something that William McLean, ATU president and business agent, believes trivializes the driver's situation and perpetuates an already serious problem by putting the blame where it does not belong. "We don't believe that the customer is always right, because in most cases of assault the customer is dead wrong. The driver is not there to cause trouble; he's there to drive them safely down the road and drop them off."

The assumption that a driver who is assaulted could have verbally prevented a violent situation appears to have affected worker's compensation cases as well as the disciplinary procedures of the district. Springer and McLean describe situations where drivers are forced to leave work after particularly serious assaults, yet their worker's compensation payments are deferred because of lengthy investigations into the legitimacy of the claims. The 1988 umbrella assault is one such example; the driver in that case was told the night before he was scheduled for surgery that worker's compensation would refuse to pay his hospital costs because he had exited the bus shortly before the attack, after his assailant spat on him.

"It's demoralizing to get beaten up on a bus and have the employer decide that it's not compensable yet," McLean says. "You're off work . . . you've been beat up, and then they're claiming: 'well, there's a way you could have avoided it.' "

MANAGEMENT'S proclivity to shift the blame from passenger to driver simply adds to a whole list of district policies that union authorities say tend to ignore the problem of violence. Primary items on that list include what union officials say is a reluctance by the district attorney's office to prosecute individuals who attack drivers, and a lack of effort to encourage prosecutions by the transportation district itself. "Up until very recently [the district attorney] didn't prosecute anything," says McLean, who believes that transit supervision doesn't show enough concern for the outcome or pursuit of cases against individuals who assault transit operators.

Actual statistics on the number of driver-assault prosecutions carried out by the district attorney are elusive--neither the transit district itself, the union, the district attorney's office nor the sheriff's department could provide any figures to show that such crimes are being pursued aggressively. McLean maintains that the numbers are low, blaming politics and contending that the advantages of such prosecutions are simply too understated to gain the attention of the district attorney. "I know they have prosecuted a few--not very many--because they have their own priorities about the criminal system and justice system as they see it, and assaults on bus drivers is not high enough on their roster."

Union authorities believe that the transit district itself could begin to change that practice by making prosecution demands on the district attorney's office. Deputy District Attorney Michael Fletcher, however, denies that such a policy would be appropriate or even necessary. "I think that's sort of sophistry to say that the agency doesn't encourage it; how would they encourage it? . . . Does the social services department call us? No. Does the DMV call us? No. Does any public agency call us and say 'as a general rule, prosecute'? No. We don't need to be told that, A --and B, it isn't the way the world works."

Fletcher adds that he doesn't agree with the union's belief that assaults on bus drivers receive a lower priority with the district attorney's office, claiming that such a case would normally be pursued more aggressively than, for example, a bar brawl which resulted in the same types of injuries. "I would treat the assault on the bus driver as a much more serious affront to our community, and something that I would recommend allocating a lot more of our resources to than the other situation. It is not true that our office or any law enforcement that I'm aware of is not interested or is putting a lower priority on transportation agency personnel who are victims; it's quite to the contrary."

REGARDLESS OF the legal intricacies and the absence of tracking of transit assault statistics, assaults continue to occur at a rate that suggests that there is simply no effective mechanism in place within the system to discourage them. Drivers describe assaults prompted by 25-cent fare disputes, or because a passenger was asked to extinguish a cigarette or discard food before boarding the bus. One driver tells of a co-worker who was attacked by a passenger's jealous husband, who opened up a briefcase, pulled out a hammer and hammered the driver in the head.

In another incident, a female operator was stabbed several times by a passenger who wanted money for drugs. When she was unable to give him any cash and attempted to call for help, he slashed her with a box-cutter.

The driver who was attacked with a brick says that his own assault occurred after he asked two passengers to close a rear window on a cold evening. "They got off the bus and I kept the doors closed," he says, "I was sitting there making up a little time, because I was running a little ahead of schedule, and the guy tapped on the windows and asked me to open the doors. When I did, he threw half of a brick and hit me in the side just below the shoulder."

"That kind of stuff happens all the time," he adds.

Such less serious attacks, in fact, are often not reported to the police at all. Many of those that are reported are not pursuable because the assailant is never identified. When a case does manage to go as far as a courtroom, however, it goes there fairly quietly. According to union officials, that "quietness" adds an additional complication to the overall issue of assaults on bus operators. Prosecution alone, they say, is not enough to deter additional assailants. Rather, it is public knowledge of prosecution that will help to prevent recurring incidents.

Springer advocates having the buses themselves display warnings about the penalties that a potential assailant will have to face if he attacks a driver or a passenger. She also favors a system where case histories of prosecutions are published, an action that she says will let passengers know that the system recognizes the existence of a problem and is willing to take aggressive steps to protect its customers. Her suggestions have been consistently downplayed by the district. "They believe it tends to broadly paint our system as unsafe if they start advertising prosecutions within it," says McLean, who believes that the suppression of such information could actually encourage more violence aboard public transit.

Although she acknowledges that the union's suggestion has been discussed, adding that the idea is currently under consideration, Transportation Agency spokesperson Newman says she believes that type of policy may not be particularly effective. "Because we don't have large numbers of assaults on drivers it would be very sporadic," she says. The infrequency of violence upon transit operators, she explains (district records list eight felony and nine misdemeanor assaults between January and September of 1994, compared with six felony assaults and 18 misdemeanors during the same months of 1995), would nullify any impact that advertisements of prosecutions might have.

The sheriff's department's 1994 transit patrol statistics list the total number of assaults on bus operators at 23. "I think those numbers are low," says Springer, who adds that she has seen an increase both in the frequency of assaults and the severity of those assaults. Weapons, she says, are becoming far more common in such incidents.

THE THREAT is not limited to bus operators, either. One driver describes an occasion where a passenger was attacked by another passenger: "A guy was walking off the bus and the guy sitting behind me pulled a knife out and lunged at [him] and tried to stick him in the chest with it. And the guy kind of dodged out of the way and they both took off running out of the bus." The incident, says the driver, was not reported to police because it happened so quickly that identification of the participants would have been impossible.

The sheriff's report shows a total of 42 assaults on passengers for the year of 1994, figures that are probably not accurate simply because of the number of incidents, like the previous one, that are not even reported to police.

Although Newman and others at the agency say that they don't recall specifics about incidents such as the umbrella assault and the hammer attack, she says that violence on buses is somewhat inevitable. "We deal with every person in society," she says. "These incidents unfortunately do happen. They do not happen in great numbers." Statistics cited by Newman reveal a .4 assault rate per million riders in Santa Clara County.

REGARDLESS OF the actual statistics, management and the ATU agree that safety measures aboard their buses are necessary to the safety of the operator and passengers. What they disagree on is the effectiveness of the precautions that are already in place. Newman lists a number of safety measures that the district currently uses to help deal with the possibility of violence. "We have the head signs [the digital signs appearing on the front of the bus that provide destination information], which can be programmed by the drivers to say 'call the police,'" she says. "We have silent alarms, closed circuit TV surveillance on some of our buses. . . . And of course there are telephones aboard the buses. Buses are able to correspond immediately with our control center."

The district places the response time of their emergency radio system at a seven-minute average, a figure that the union disputes. "I personally have been documenting failures with our radio system since November of 1988 when the system was first put on the transit buses," contends Springer, adding that her own records show response times of 45 minutes to five hours. "What our documentation has proven beyond a doubt time and time again is that their data is in error."

District statistical reports, for example, might show an immediate response time for an incident when union reports indicate that the driver was in fact met by security 10 minutes from where the emergency call had been made. According to McLean, the problem lies in the original intent of the radio system, which was purchased to deal with tasks other than the handling of security calls. "It was engineered to create statistics," says McLean, "and then as a byproduct it would respond to the person making the call."

Springer calls the radio system "an unqualified failure," a belief that is mirrored by the assault stories told by the drivers themselves. After describing his own experience with a passenger who attacked him because there was a delay in transit service, one driver called the radio system "totally worthless." Another says that his request for "immediate assistance" was finally dealt with four hours after he made the initial call.

"Because of lack of maintenance, a poor radio system and bad software to begin with," says Springer, "we are now at a point where we are having severe problems with operators getting help. And if you can't summon police to assist you and you can't summon an ambulance to come take care of a passenger who has just gone into a seizure how can you protect [the passengers] or yourself ?"

The district currently works with the sheriff's department on its security issues, an agreement that McLean says creates jurisdictional problems. "The sheriff [sheriff's office] itself, as a unit, has its own policing obligations as its first priority--secondary to security of the transit system."

It is a problem that has been considered by management as well as the union. "Our board of directors will be taking a look at providing security in a different manner with dedicated police," says Newman. However, the "dedicated police" that the board will be considering this month belong to a private security company--a step in the right direction, say union officials, but not preferable to the other alternatives. BART, for example, has its own transit district police department--dedicated only to the protection of transit.

When the statistics on driver and passenger assaults are viewed in conjunction with the number of people who use the system--39.18 million each year--Santa Clara County Transit is proportionally safer than most other systems in large metropolitan areas. The 1988 statistics for the city of Los Angeles, for example, show that an average of one assault per day and 170 assaults on bus operators occurred on public buses over a period of one year. However, local drivers and the ATU maintain that the mere existence of problems, regardless of their severity in comparison to other large cities, is enough to validate the search for solutions.

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From the February 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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