Rise in transit worker assaults prompts summit seeking solutions

The view from the cockpit of an M15 bus, the route where last week a driver was punched in the face. Photo: Jebb/Flickr

On Thursday morning, employees and executives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) gathered in downtown Brooklyn for what Transport Workers Union Local 100 says is the first national conference on assaults against mass transit conductors and drivers.

The timing is apt. Last Friday, a male suspect in his 40s punched a 58-year-old female M15 bus driver in the face before fleeing the bus near East 102nd Street and 1st Avenue in Manhattan, according to the NYPD. The victim immediately drove back to her designated East Harlem bus depot, visited a hospital later that day, and will likely take time off work because of the incident, said Gerry Torres, union chairman for bus operators at her East Harlem depot.

“This is happening more and more,” said Torres, who believed that increased attacks had to do with government budget cuts affecting transport services and increased waiting times for passengers. “It’s not so bad here in Manhattan, but there are problems throughout the city.”

Police investigation is ongoing.

Jim Gannon, a spokesman for TWU Local 100, declined to comment on this case, but said that several drivers who are harassed or attacked “just want to put it behind them.”

“They just report it to Transit, and just say: ‘Hey, what am I gonna do?’” said Gannon. “A lot of the female drivers feel terribly intimidated.”

In 2010, there were 72 physical assaults of New York City Transit bus drivers or subway workers, alongside 936 cases of harassment, a category which includes verbal abuse, spitting, and any other non-physical incidents. In 2011, the number of assaults rose to 94, with 1,092 incidents of harassment, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority spokesman Charles Seaton.

The MTA does not have reliable or comparable data for attacks prior to 2010.

The agency has been taking measures to reduce tensions. “All bus operators, new hires, and bus operators up for refreshers are given conflict resolution training,” said Seaton, adding that bus drivers are currently advised only to remind riders to pay a fare, and are not supposed to take any further action.

Mike Sadler, a 47-year-old M104 bus operator with around 15 years of experience, said bus routes in Brooklyn and the Bronx have a reputation for being especially dangerous, in particular the the B46 in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s M35, which travels across Randall’s Island. Resting after a shift, he said drivers need to stay “clever” to deal with fare evaders, without provoking a fight.

The MTA told NY1 in September 2008 that the B46 had the most fare evaders of any city route, with an average of 4,000 not paying the fare each week. In December 2008, a passenger stabbed bus driver Edwin Thomas to death on the B46, the last known killing of a city bus driver.

The MTA no longer releases information on bus routes with high rates of fare evasion; instead, the NYPD tracks incidents through summonses, said Seaton.

Whether city agencies have done much to prevent or prosecute attacks on transit workers in the past five years, however, remains unclear.

Gannon noted “a bit of a spike” in attacks against transit workers in recent years, but said there had been no major legislation or action by the MTA or others in response. “There’s also a perception among transit workers,” added Gannon, “that the police and the District Attorneys don’t prosecute these crimes aggressively.”

In July 2008, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes established the Assault on Transit Workers Program, a four-man initiative tasked with investigating and prosecuting attacks against transit workers. Staffers working with the program declined repeated interview requests through Brooklyn DA spokesman Sandy Silverstein. He said that the unit had worked on 24 cases — resulting in nine felony pleas and five misdemeanor pleas, with six cases still pending.

Although attackers face a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, as emphasized by the yellow stickers near the entrances of most city buses, Silverstein could not confirm how many of those convicted of felonies received the maximum sentence.

The MTA and its workers’ unions run their own group, the Joint Bus Operator Assault Committee. Its union chair could not be reached for an interview despite several attempts; the MTA declined to provide names or interviews for its committee members.

Measures the committee considered back in 2008, after the stabbing of Edwin Thomas, included a direct button for drivers to call 911, as well as a physical barrier to protect drivers.

Meanwhile, the MTA is installing security cameras on 1,150 more buses among its fleet of roughly 6,000. It has also been installing plexiglass shields to protect bus drivers.

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