Metro Reexamines Bus Driver Hiring Rules

"You don't have a lot of people who really want to be bus drivers," Candace Smith of Metro said. "It's not going to be a lot of college graduates."
"You don't have a lot of people who really want to be bus drivers," Candace Smith of Metro said. "It's not going to be a lot of college graduates." (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Lena H. Sun and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tighter hiring standards for bus operators could be in place as soon as May, Metro officials said yesterday, after two recent incidents in which Metrobus drivers were involved in crimes. One of those drivers had an extensive record of violent felony offenses, including one in which a man was killed.

Bus driver Jelani K. Slay, 34, of Clinton was fatally shot March 8 by an off-duty D.C. police officer. Police said Slay, wearing a mask and brandishing a gun, tried to rob the officer in the 5300 block of B Street SE. Slay was hired as a Metrobus driver in March 2007.

Slay, who had a record of armed robberies and other crimes dating back to the 1990s, was hired as a Metrobus driver two months after getting out of prison, where he spent nearly 11 years. Court records show that he was charged with voluntary manslaughter after he fatally shot an armed man during a dispute on a D.C. street in March 1992. A grand jury declined to indict him in the case.

A month later, police said, Slay and three acquaintances robbed two D.C. men of cocaine, cash and a weapon. One of the victims was shot to death by one of Slay's accomplices, police said. Slay was charged with felony murder and several other offenses.

That summer, in a separate case, he also was charged with selling cocaine and illegal gun possession. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the cases and, because he was still a teenager, was sentenced to probation. In April 1996, though, after he robbed two men at gunpoint in the District, he was given a prison sentence. He stayed there until January 2007.

Because Slay's last felony occurred more than a decade before he applied for a Metro job -- he was in prison all those years -- his criminal record did not disqualify him, Metro spokeswoman Candace Smith said yesterday.

Smith said it is difficult to fill the 2,400 bus-driver positions. In a good economy, when Slay was hired, "you don't have a lot of people who really want to be bus drivers. It's not going to be a lot of college graduates."

Metro has 1,500 buses. Applicants are disqualified if they have had one felony conviction in the previous three years or two in the past 10 years, officials said. Metro conducts criminal background checks on all potential employees. Bus operator applicants also must take drug, alcohol and medical tests; must pass commercial driving tests; and must complete Metro's two-month training program.

"We've created a special team to implement more stringent selection criteria for applicants and job retention standards, particularly for bus operator applicants given recent high-profile events involving two bus operators," General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said in a statement yesterday.

Catoe was also referring to the case of Shawn Brim, 36, a driver for nearly six years. On Feb. 28, Brim was accused of punching an off-duty police officer dressed as McGruff the Crime Dog. He was fired March 6.

The team will review job descriptions, procedures, candidate qualifications, standards for background checks and performance tracking. The group also will review hiring standards at other transit agencies and aim to implement the best practices in the transit industry.

Separately, the Metrobus operator who was killed by a train last Friday at McPherson Square had tried to kill himself eight hours earlier that day at Farragut West, a Metro spokesman said yesterday.

Steven Taubenkibel said Kurtland Johnson, 42, intentionally placed himself on the tracks at the Farragut West Station at 5:25 a.m. but climbed back onto the platform a minute later. He jumped onto the tracks at McPherson Square about 1:16 p.m. and was struck by a Blue Line train.

Rail personnel dispatched Metro transit police in the earlier incident, but Johnson was gone by the time police arrived at 5:28 a.m., he said.

Security camera footage shows Johnson entering the station, then sitting on the platform dangling his feet over the edge before climbing down into the track bed, according to a source who did not want to be identified because the investigation is continuing. Johnson hugged the electrified third rail, then climbed back up to the platform.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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