They’re vital to the community and scared for their lives. Bus drivers with AC Transit are calling for major safety reforms, warning that the problem of driver assaults is more rampant than the public is aware. Crime data from agency management shows that the number of driver assaults has fallen in the last two years. But hours of surveillance video reviewed by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit actually found a spike in attacks reported by drivers during that time. Drivers say these attacks create significant delays, and jeopardize public safety.
NBC Bay Area requested records for nearly 200 alleged assaults on drivers from 2014 to November 2017. Security video showed drivers enduring a barrage of attacks while behind the wheel. Some of the weapons used include umbrellas, canes, and pepper spray. One driver was even threatened with a gun.
“The fear is that you’re not coming home,” driver Bouasine Xaythavone told NBC Bay Area.
In September of 2016 Xaythavone experienced a life-threatening attack, and it was all caught on camera. Xaythavone was dragged off his bus by the neck, and beaten while he lay on the ground after asking a passenger to exit the bus at the end of the line. Xaythavone even offered the man a free all day pass, but the gesture was not enough to protect him from the ensuing assault.
“It’s scary to be out there without any protection without any help,” Xaythavone said. Help finally arrived when two good Samaritans chased off the attacker. Police arrived 8 minutes later, but video shows the man was long gone by then.
Xaythavone is one of several injured drivers NBC Bay Area contacted who said their job leaves them vulnerable to violence.
Operators said they first asked AC Transit for additional protection through their union back in 2014. That request included more training to defuse violent passengers and a physical barrier for certain routes, similar to the ones used on buses in San Francisco and Miami.
District management considered their requests, but decided the changes were not needed at the time.
Each year, AC Transit staff updates the Board of Directors on the number of crimes committed against drivers. AC Transit’s most recent security report showed a 26% decline in assaults from 2015 to 2016. But the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reviewed bus surveillance video from every reported incident since 2014 and found the number of reported incidents has steadily increased.
“AC Transit has to realize the seriousness of the problems,” ATU 192 President Yvonne Williams told NBC Bay Area. Williams represents more than 1,300 drivers working for AC Transit. She says the district is underreporting the number of assaults that actually occur.
“We want to know when any member says that they've been assaulted. We need a report of it,” Williams said.
NBC Bay Area asked AC Transit Chief Operating Officer Salvador Llamas about the drivers’ safety concerns and why the district’s surveillance cameras appear to show more assaults than the district reports to the public.
He said it’s due in part to increased awareness from drivers about the reporting protocol, and he encourages drivers to always call in to dispatch when they feel unsafe.
“The information provided to you was the clips that are labeled as assault. . . There is more reporting going on which leads me to believe that our operators are more aware of these types of behaviors and they’re reporting that, we want them to do that.”
Llamas, who has been with AC Transit for five years, but in the COO role for about three months, explained another reason the numbers don't match up because AC Transit does not count how many assaults are reported by its bus operators. The agency sends all reports to law enforcement, and that’s who decides which incidents count as an assault.
“AC Transit has not now or ever defined what an assault is. That’s something the law enforcement community does,” Llamas said. “That’s where the law enforcement partners that we have work on that. They’re the ones that are going to determine whether an assault occurred. What we’re going to do is we’re going to respond to the operator, and we’re going to say we got your message. We’re going to provide you trauma response resources to help you through this.”
After NBC Bay Area began asking questions, AC Transit is now responding to driver concerns by testing out a protective shield on some of their buses.
NBC Bay Area asked Llamas why the district chose this week to finally look into a safety feature drivers requested nearly four years ago.
“Earlier models were just prototypes and they were not readily available on the market. . . There was just so much uncertainty with the shields, we wanted to see if it is actually making a difference.”
AC Transit hopes to have those shields installed on buses by this summer.
It’s welcome news to veteran bus operator Xaythavone and union president Williams, who say drivers take pride in their jobs and serving the community, but they want to feel safe at work.
“I love my job. I would not change my work,” Xaythavone said. “This is a very rewarding job. We take kids to school and parents rely on us. We want to be out there and feel the trust in us.”
In a statement emailed after NBC Bay Area interviewed Llamas, AC Transit spokesman Robert Lyles added:
"We stress emphatically that all Bay Area residents should share AC Transit’s outrage over past and sadly ongoing incidents of riders perpetrating violent attacks against our Operators. No professional should ever face a punch, a kick, being spat upon, or verbal harassment for simply doing his or her job.
AC Transit has been proactive in assisting Operators who have faced violence by riders. In fact, we have a longstanding protocol, that includes psychological support and paid time off for recovery, for any operator who reports a violent event. In support of this protocol, AC Transit has never attempted to codify a definition of a violent act. Nevertheless, because a myriad of rider related events may occur onboard, we train Operators to report violent events under the term assault, to streamline the referral process to law enforcement.
The NBC Bay Area Public Records request was for all events reported, by Operators, as an assault to AC Transit Management. Each of these events was sent to our law enforcement partners with reports and when possible closed circuit video for additional investigation. Trained sheriff’s deputies then determine if the violent event meets California’s Penal Code for the crime of assault. The results of the criminal investigation are then presented annually to AC Transit’s Board of Directors. The content of each board report is accurate and publicly available for review.
Moreover, NBC Bay Area received the same closed circuit videos provided to our law enforcement partners, as part of our continued commitment to transparency to our riders and the public at large.
AC Transit will continue to work closely with law enforcement and the courts to prosecute violent acts against our employees and riders. Under California Law, those identified as responsible for an assault against a public transportation worker or passenger are subject to fines and imprisonment or both. Last, as stewards of the public’s trust, AC Transit will continue to preserve video, monitor our reporting practices and the compilation of data."