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 fare-collection 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 the end of 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 with 328 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 passengers 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.”