Carmelita Mullen pulled her 40-foot-long Metrobus to a stop near the Congress Heights station.
Five young men, wearing hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps that made it difficult to see their faces, waited to board.
“I don’t like a group like that,” said Mullen, a petite presence behind the bus’s huge steering wheel, as she prepared to open the door. “There’s so many of them. Seems like they’re up to no good.
“It kinda makes you nervous. There’s no secret; things happen over here.”
The men piled onto Mullen’s bus and went on their way after riding for a few stops. Nothing happened. But recent violence aboard buses has drivers such as Mullen clamoring for protection — and police pursuing ways to increase safety.
Drivers, who say they have been targeted when they try to enforce rules or people don’t want to pay fares, have been spat upon, cursed, punched, pepper-sprayed and grabbed by the throat, police say. In one case, a woman beat up a bus operator at the Capitol Heights station after she was asked to fold a child’s stroller.
Police and union officials have developed guidelines on how bus operators should respond to violence. One of them is: Open the doors and evacuate if there’s an active shooting.
That’s not far-fetched. In October, a passenger died after he was shot in the face on a Metrobus.
Metro said police have increased patrols. Twenty-two members of a special enforcement unit regularly ride buses in uniform and plainclothes. (There were three riding aboard Mullen’s bus whom she didn’t know about.)
The transit authority is also considering installing barriers between drivers and passengers. Officials had proposed installing 250 shields made of aluminum and clear polycarbonate. The shields, which cost $1,500 to $2,500 each, depending on the type of bus, close like gates after operators are buckled into their seats. Riders can talk to the operators through small holes in the top part of the shield.
The transit authority scaled back the plan after some board members questioned whether that would alarm riders.
“We want our bus operators to feel safe,” said D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is a member of the Metro board. But “I’m uncomfortable with the notion” of the shields. “I’m not sure how the actual assaults justify walling off the bus drivers. I’m not sure a case has been made.”
Officials now expect to roll out shields on 100 buses this winter and spring as a test, assigning the vehicles to the Bladensburg and Four Mile bus divisions, and areas where there have been attacks on operators.
“We think of this as a low-cost way to gauge effectiveness, as well as employee and customer reaction, before advancing a wider rollout,” said Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman.
Some riders say they see the need for the shields and fear for the safety of drivers.
On a recent afternoon, passengers riding on the U5, which runs from near the Minnesota Avenue Station to areas around Benning Road, said they support the idea.
“I think it is wonderful,” said Audrey Cockeran, 77, who lives in Southeast Washington. “Because if the driver is not protected, then we’re not protected. It starts with the bus operator. . . . He doesn’t have too much self-defense against four or five teenagers or a drunk who comes after him. I’ve heard drivers say, ‘Put your cigarette out.’ And they don’t do nothing but fuss and curse at him.”
Sitting a few seats away, rider Peggy Pickett nodded her head in agreement.
“Anything that protects drivers is good,” she said. “People get on, and I’ve seen them get nasty. . . . They don’t want to pay the fare. They don’t want to turn the music down. Sometimes they’re picking at other passengers. You’ve got to be protected.”
Metrobus operators won’t be required to use the shields but will have the option to use them on certain routes.
Officials say their buses are safe for passengers and drivers, especially relative to the size of the system. On an average weekday, 2,450 bus operators drive 453,000 passengers on 155 lines in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
In 2009, there were 71 assaults on bus operators, according to Metro. That figure jumped to 90 in 2010 and dipped back to 44 from January through September 2011.
But the numbers don’t reflect arguments and lesser incidents. Some operators say they fight a war of words every day.
“No sooner than I am past Capitol Hill, and I have to get my defensive side up because of the nature of the environment,” said one operator who works out of Metro’s Western Division. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution.
“It goes from being called ‘No, sir; yes, sir’ to four-letter words,” he said. “They want to sometimes argue with you over a $1.70 fare.”
Like many operators, he has mixed feelings about the shields. “It’s a shame I have to be put in a cage to do my job,” said the driver, who has worked with Metro for more than two years.
Rodney Jones, a bus operator who drives routes mostly in Southeast Washington, said he thinks the shields are “an intrusion.”
“It doesn’t have that personal touch that you normally get when you can high-five a 5-year-old,” he said. But, he said, operators are being targeted.
“I’ve been with Metro less than a year, and I’ve been threatened more than Obama,” he said, referring to the president.
It isn’t the first time Metro has considered putting in bus shields. In 2008, it installed some shields after talking with Metro’s union.
A survey of bus operators done at that time found that 70 percent didn’t like the shields, said Phil Wallace, managing director for Metro’s bus maintenance.
The rest of those surveyed — mostly female bus operators, according to Wallace — said they liked the shields and felt more protected with them, especially when working late-night shifts.
Metro officials warn that the bus shields aren’t a cure-all.
“Is this going to keep someone who really wants to harm you away?” Wallace said. “Probably not. This is a deterrent.”
Many riders said they also would like to see more transit officers riding buses. Police said that’s one reason they believe the number of assaults have dropped. Police are attending bus operator safety meetings to understand where incidents are happening and then targeting those routes with increased patrols, including plainclothes officers, Metro said.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has asked for money in the transit authority’s next budget to hire more officers to patrol buses.
Riders also have said they want working cameras installed on every bus. About 1,155 of Metro’s 1,492 buses have cameras that are constantly recording. According to a bus official, 75 cameras are not working and are beyond repair. Metro said it expects to have 1,400 buses equipped with cameras by July.
Back on her route, Mullen said more cameras that work — and shields — would make her feel safer.
“People talk about reality TV,” she said. “This is reality.”