Metrobus drivers are calling for police escorts on the X2 bus line citing safety concerns after a woman threw a cup of urine on one of their co-workers.
At a news conference held early Friday at the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Southeast D.C., union leaders said workers don’t feel safe operating their buses, and that Metro’s management has had “years of inaction” on bus driver safety and had failed to act on the assault that was captured on surveillance video Saturday on the X2 line.
In response, Metro board chairman Jack Evans said that he believes the union’s demands are “reasonable,” but that he is not sure it would be logistically feasible, or wise, to concentrate transit police presence along one bus line and cover every bus running along that route.
“I can see why they would make a request like that. They want their drivers to be safe,” Evans said Friday. “We’ll sit down with the union and talk about it.”
Demands for round-the-clock police escorts along the X2 bus line were raised after Opal L. Brown, 38, of Southeast Washington, pleaded not guilty Thursday to misdemeanor simple assault in D.C. Superior Court.
Brown is accused of using a cup to relieve herself near the back of the bus on Saturday evening, then throwing the cup of urine at a bus driver who told her to “have a nice day” as she disembarked near Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue. Police said Brown turned herself in early Wednesday morning and confessed to committing the assault because she “hates Metro.”
Brown was released on her own recognizance. Metro Transit Police had requested that a judge order her to stay off all Metro buses, but the court decided to only bar her from riding the X2, at least until her next court appearance in late September.
Workers said they believe police escorts, at least along the X2 route that runs from Southeast D.C. to the White House, could help prevent a similar incident from happening to another driver. At 3 a.m. Friday, the union sent out a statement declaring that no workers felt safe operating buses along the X2 route until police showed up to escort them — a vow that was interpreted by Metro officials as a strike or protest action, and a potential violation of the terms of the union’s no-strike contract with Metro.
“ATU Local 689 … is currently engaged in an unauthorized and potentially unlawful labor action that is significantly impacting riders on the X2 line,” Metro said in a statement Friday morning. “Absolutely no one should be assaulted simply for doing their job. However, we disagree with impacting Metro customers who are simply trying to get to work and school by Metrobus Operators refusing to provide bus service in a disruptive and unlawful job action.”
As the Friday morning rush proceeded, the X2 buses were still running without escorts along the route — albeit significantly delayed in some cases.
The controversy over preventing assaults on buses comes as drivers say they’ve had to deal with more unpleasant customers and assaults in recent years.
Last year, there were 75 recorded assaults on Metro bus drivers, who transport an average of 465,000 passengers a day in the D.C. region. That was down from 87 in 2015. In an email asking about the drivers’ concerns, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel at first wrote, “Metro puts 1,200 buses on the street every morning. They do not get police escorts.”
The D.C. police department did not immediately respond as to whether they would provide the police escort that drivers were requesting.
Stessel also said Metro’s Transit Police force now has 40 officers who are assigned exclusively to buses, riding the system every day and often in plain clothes. He said they are also embedded at Shepherd Parkway and the Northern bus divisions of Metro and get information from drivers “about where problems are being encountered.”
More than a third of Metro’s buses also have protective safety shields; the buses have digital cameras that can record incidents as well. And Stessel said Metro’s management also agreed with the union that there should be stricter penalties for anyone who assaults a transit worker.
Evans said he sympathizes with the bus drivers on their safety concerns, and believes that more can be done to help deter riders from attacking or assaulting operators.
But he worried that directing all transit police resources at one section of the bus system would leave other parts of the network vulnerable. He also wondered whether riders would find it troubling to see uniformed police officers posted on every bus running through one section of the region. But he said he, the rest of the Metro board, and Metro management are open to hearing ideas from staff.
“We’re going to have to take a look at it, and see what mitigating circumstances we can take at Metro to try to prevent something like this from happening again,” Evans said.
Evans said he was also planning to consider the suggestion from both the union and Metro officials that D.C., Maryland and Virginia legislatures increase the penalties for assaulting transit workers, making it an automatic felony offense rather than a misdemeanor. But Evans, who is also a member of the D.C. Council, said he was unsure whether he would be able to get enough support from his colleagues in the District to pass such a change to the law.
“There’s not a predisposition on the D.C. Council to increase penalties on anything. It’s the most liberal council I’ve ever served on in my life,” Evans said. “And I haven’t found that harsher punishments are a deterrent to crime in many respects.”