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On Bus Bullies: Aggressive steps demanded as assaults on transit drivers grow

July 7th, 2012 - Comments Off

Roy MARTIN could hear his bones break when the bottle of beer smashed into his face.

It was a quiet evening when he pulled into the bus loop at Main Street and Margaret Avenue for a 10-minute stopover in May 1993. As Martin chatted and joked with passengers who waited for the scheduled departure for downtown, one drunk passenger grew impatient and told Martin he wanted to leave.

When Martin told him he had to wait, the man walked over and punched him. As he moved to step off the bus, he threw a full beer bottle at Martin’s face, shattering his cheekbone.

“I heard the bones break,” Martin said, noting doctors contemplated using a steel plate to repair his cheek before he had reconstructive surgery on his face. “It took a long, long time to fully recover. I suffered with migraines for a number of years after that because it did nerve damage.”

Serious assaults against bus drivers were rare at that time, but Winnipeg has seen a steady increase in incidents in recent years. City data show there have been 409 reported assaults against Winnipeg Transit drivers between 2000 and 2012.

Data show an average of 63 assaults have been recorded every year since 2009, when the city began including incidents in which drivers were threatened or spat upon. Between January and March 2012, bus drivers reported 23 assaults to Winnipeg Transit.

Transit data obtained by the Free Press reveal a significant portion of these incidents have occurred on a handful of routes — in particular the 16, 11, 15, and 18 — mostly after 2 p.m. Officials say the majority of these incidents are prompted by disputes arising from passengers who don’t pay bus fare.

Currently, transit drivers call on transit inspectors to respond to assaults. The inspectors are trained to calm any disputes, but do not carry weapons or handcuffs and do not have the authority to restrain assailants until police arrive.

Earlier this week, council’s public works committee voted to explore the idea of granting more power to 13 inspectors.

That’s on top of new recommendations to expand on-board surveillance cameras to better capture incidents of assaults against bus drivers.

But critics say Winnipeg should follow the lead of other Canadian cities and introduce a more robust strategy, including creating a transit police force with officers trained and equipped to respond to violence against transit operators.

“I don’t think we should be waiting until someone gets stabbed or something dramatic happens to realize (transit) inspectors are putting themselves in difficult or dangerous situations,” said Bill Comstock, a labour relations official from the Winnipeg Association of Public Service Officers. “The biggest danger (for drivers) ought to be the traffic.”

It’s a phenomenon that’s occurred across the country and prompted the Canadian Urban Transit Association to lobby the federal government to introduce minimum sentences for assaulting a transit worker. The notion is that transit workers are responsible for many lives, and their safety should be better protected by law.

Winnipeg bus drivers have reportedly been punched in the chest, verbally threatened, spat on, kicked and had their eyeglasses broken. Some are unable to work and are currently on workers compensation. One driver reportedly had a bag of feces thrown at him.

Jim Girden, president of Amalgamated Transit Union local 1505, said many of these incidents start after a passenger does not pay the full bus fare. Girden said most drivers usually let it slide if a regular passenger is a bit short or if there’s some kind of emergency. Many times, he said, passengers pay the difference the next day.

However, Girden said it should not be up to drivers to force people to pay the fare, as some customers become belligerent and abusive.

“The end result is why is it the operators’ responsibility to have to say to people, ‘You have to pay the bus fare?’ ” Girden said. “We shouldn’t be a punching board.”

Other cities have moved toward employing “fare-checkers” who conduct random checks and issue fines to passengers who don’t pay.

TransLink, which oversees bus and SkyTrain transit in Vancouver, tells its drivers not to be too pushy about fare collection and to keep a record of non-payment. TransLink spokesman Drew Snider said the agency used to tell drivers to inform passengers to pay the fare, which he said was often an “invitation to be punched out.” They also offer voluntary training to bus drivers to learn how to defuse a potentially violent situation.

Snider said TransLink has 180 transit police who patrol SkyTrain, write tickets for fare evasion and watch for violent incidents. A separate transit security force focuses on buses, and though they do not have the power to write tickets, they arrest people for trespassing if they do not pay the fare.

Buses are equipped with hidden microphones that kick in when drivers push a button to alert the central command there’s a problem.

“Even if the bus driver is unable to say something, (we) can hear what’s going on,” Snider said.

Even so, TransLink has seen a number of high-profile transit assaults. Earlier this week, a Vancouver driver was taken to hospital after being punched.

Two years ago, a horrific assault left Edmonton bus driver Tom Bregg near dead and blind in one eye and prompted the city to beef up its security and launch a zero-tolerance campaign against transit violence.

Ron Gabruck, a retired police officer who heads Edmonton transit’s operational support, said the city moved swiftly to ensure peace officers ride aboard buses and communicate with drivers a certain number of times during each shift.

Edmonton already has a robust system, established seven years ago, that analyzes and tracks transit assaults. About 60 peace officers — who carry batons and pepper spray — are dedicated to transit and respond to incidents, most of which, data show, are considered “nuisance crimes” such as public drunkenness.

After the Bregg assault, Gabruck said the mayor and chief of police did a media blitz to raise awareness that violence aboard transit would not be tolerated. Edmonton increased its fines for fare evasion and changed bylaws to impose a $250 penalty for spitting aboard buses.

In the first year of the crackdown, the number of assaults dropped from 61 to 41. So far this year, Edmonton has recorded just nine transit assaults.

“It’s going to cost money to secure the system. To think otherwise, in my experience, is really wrong,” Gabruck said. “What value do you place on having operators and patrons safe?”

Winnipeg Transit’s proposed strategy — to expand surveillance and display warnings that notify passengers buses are equipped with audio and video surveillance and they could be prosecuted for assault — is all within the department’s current operating budget.

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) said he’s prepared to champion the cause and push for the city to put more money into assault prevention. He said that on any given day, Winnipeg Transit is the second-largest city in the province, with an average daily ridership of 157,000.

Mayes said he believes that for the cost of one bus, Winnipeg can improve security and make people want to ride the bus.

“We’re trying to expand the system, so let’s send the message it’s reliable, it’s efficient, it’s safe,” he said.

Copyright 2012, winnipegfreepress.com

Aldie Alia is a content curator for CatholicFavors.com where you can buy the finest in Ave Maria rosary necklaces, Laser engraved sterling stainless steel pendant necklaces, Diamond-cut crystal rosaries, and other religious gift ideas.

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