The next time you ride a bus in the East Bay, you might notice a few subtle yet significant changes. AC Transit is currently testing out protective shields and surveillance monitors as part of a new campaign to help keep drivers and passengers safe. The new safety measures follow an NBC Bay Area investigation that found a rise in the number of assaults reported by bus operators.
NEW AC TRANSIT SAFETY MEASURES
• Investigate every assault incident to identify triggers that prompt assaults and provide a summary report
• Review incident “heat charts” to find lines with problems
• Test plexiglass shields on buses for certain routes
• Train drivers to de-escalate confrontations with customers
• Test video monitors that show passengers they are being recorded
• Ad campaign on all buses promoting safety
• Re-assign law enforcement staffing to increase patrols on high-crime routes.
Veteran driver Eric Braziel told NBC Bay Area that he welcomes the safety upgrades, but questions why it took so long for AC Transit to address the problem. A former shop steward with 24 years of experience behind the wheel, Braziel said he took countless reports from colleagues who suffered attacks on the job.
“[I’ve seen] people getting slapped, hit, nose broken, all different types of things, and I believe that up until now, management should have been more in touch with us as humans first instead of professional drivers,” Braziel said. “You had wives, mothers, grandmothers, whose children didn’t want them to come back to work because they were fearing for their lives.”
DRIVER ASSAULTS PUT EVERYONE IN DANGER
Operator assaults create a safety problem not only for bus drivers, but passengers and motorists as well. Earlier this month, police in Chongqing, China, released surveillance video showing a driver lose control of his bus after a passenger started beating him with her cellphone. The bus plummeted off a bridge, killing all 15 people on board.
TRACKING ASSAULTS AGAINST DRIVERS
Earlier this year, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed hours of surveillance footage and found a rise in the number of assaults reported by AC Transit bus operators. NBC Bay Area’s findings seemed to contradict claims from district management that assaults against operators were on the decline.
In July, Executive Director of Safety Steve Keller acknowledged NBC Bay Area’s findings at a monthly board meeting and announced plans to improve security.
“There’s been an increase in operator complaints of physical altercations and assault while performing the duties of bus operator,” Keller said. “Staff reviewed every reported incident and identified the routes that represent a need for mitigation.”
But it’s a slow ride to safety. District spokesman Robert Lyles told NBC Bay Area there are two buses currently outfitted with test shields, and the district is in the process of surveying their effectiveness.
ASSAULT AND ARREST
In the meantime, AC Transit is now working with Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies to increase patrols on routes with the most complaints to improve their ability to respond and arrest anyone who assaults a driver.
“If we know ahead of time the areas, the times and locations that a lot of these type of crimes occur, we try to keep people in those very populated areas,” Alameda County Sheriff’s Captain Mark Flores told NBC Bay Area.
Capt. Flores handles the security contract for AC Transit. Records provided by his agency show that between 2014 and June 2018, deputies received 274 reports of assaults from AC Transit drivers, ranging from drivers being spat on, all the way to battery that resulted in serious injuries. Deputies made arrests in 24 percent of the cases (67 arrests).
“I wish they were 100 percent,” Flores said. He explained the reasons for the low arrest rate, citing the challenges of tracking down attackers on a mobile bus route who often disappear before police arrive. Flores said sometimes drivers don’t want to press charges.
“A battery is a misdemeanor. If it's not committed in the presence of a deputy sheriff, which a lot of times these aren't, it's incumbent upon the person being assaulted to file that complaint and say, 'Yes I want to press charges,' and then we would submit that to the district attorney. Sometimes bus operators or the people don't want to go through that, and they just want to move on and they don't file a complaint, they don't move forward,” Flores said.
While many of the changes have yet to be fully implemented, Braziel believes AC Transit is on the right road.
“I honestly believe that they're making an honest effort after knowing. Sometimes the hardest thing is to know,” Braziel said.