Metro drivers fear death is only thing that will lead to safety upgrades

VIDEO: Metro drivers fear death is only thing that will lead to safety upgrades

SEATTLE — Since KIRO 7 first exposed dozens of violent attacks against bus drivers in King County, there have been more assaults.

Earlier this month, the operator of Metro coach 8116 driving route 150 from Kent to Seattle was spat on and repeatedly punched by a passenger, who has since been charged in Superior Court with third-degree assault.

After our exclusive investigations aired in September, King County Metro told KIRO 7 it is now creating a “driver screen program” to explore ways to ensure safety.

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Our reports also brought back memories for bus operators who have been attacked, including Katherine Batey, who said it infuriated her “that this is still going on.”

Within moments of our report airing, Batey emailed KIRO 7 to express her frustration that King County still has not installed safety shields to protect Metro drivers – especially after the brutal attack she suffered nearly 10 years ago.

“He knocked me out,” Batey told KIRO 7 from her home. “I still have a great big scar on the inside of my lip where my tooth almost went through.”

The now-retired driver has no memory of the moments after she was struck multiple times while driving a bus on International Boulevard in Tukwila just after midnight in January 2010.

“I was knocked unconscious, so I guess I was going in and out,” Batey said.

Three months after the brutal assault, KIRO 7 was in the courtroom when the 14-year old attacker was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention. On that day, Batey asked that her identity be protected. But after seeing KIRO 7's recent investigations about the ongoing violence against Metro bus drivers and passengers, Batey wanted to go on the record to say she's been asking King County to increase driver safety, "ever since it happened."

Specifically, Batey said she asked that shields be installed to separate drivers from passengers. 
"They don't seem to understand how important this is," she said.

Driver shields have been installed in buses nationwide. Pierce Transit is currently testing a model for possible installation.

In KIRO 7’s September reports, Metro Deputy General Manager Terry White said King County has been exploring the idea of installing shields for 10 years, but that none of the options tested so far have been good enough.

“We don’t want to just put in something and find out we did the wrong thing, and now we’ve cost the system, and now we’ve got to pull it all out,” White said during an on-camera interview.

However, had Metro installed shields after Batey's attack, the dozens of drivers assaulted and captured on surveillance video since then might have had a wall of protection, and driver Deloy Depuis might not have been shot at point blank range while behind the wheel in downtown Seattle in August 2013.

One bullet “went through my cheek and through my arm,” Dupuis later told KIRO 7.  The suspect “started shooting and I started bobbing and weaving as much as I can with the seatbelt on, and I started screaming ‘no, no, no!’” Dupuis recalled.

That shooting in 2013 prompted renewed calls for some sort of shield -- or plexiglass cage --- to protect Metro drivers, going all the way to the top of King County government. Shortly after the shooting, King County Executive Dow Constantine told KIRO 7 “there’s been a discussion over the years of the relative merits of having some kind of encasement around the drivers.”

However, Constantine added that drivers didn't want them “because in some cases, the driver wants to be able to move quickly.”

After Batey's 2010 assault, Metro did install 30 test shields and 300 drivers then filled-out surveys.  According to Paul Bachtel, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 president in 2013, most drivers didn't want to be enclosed because a shield would result in “a change in the relationship between the operator and passenger that we thought would cause more problems, not solve problems” Bachtel said at the time.

However, since then, surveillance cameras have now been installed on more than 90% of King County's buses, recording dozens of violent assaults against drivers within the past two years, as the KIRO 7 investigation revealed.

According to King County records, in the past 10 years, nearly 230 assault-related injury claims have been filed against Metro by drivers, leading to payouts of more than $2.5 million.
Now, the majority of drivers do support the installation of shields, according to current ATU Local 587 President Ken Price.

“You’re in that position; vulnerable, and you have no protections. That’s the reality of what driving a bus in Seattle has become,” Price told KIRO 7. “The barrier is the safest way to put a plexiglass shield in front of the operator and the assailant.”

Price told KIRO 7 that --- after our reports on Metro violence first aired in September --- Metro Deputy GM White traveled back east last "to look at shields."

KIRO 7 requested a new interview with White to discuss what -- if any changes -- might be coming to Metro buses, but that request was denied.

Instead, spokesperson Jeff Switzer emailed KIRO 7, confirming, "We've heard the clear request from leadership of our labor partners at the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) that they would like Metro to install operator screens throughout our system.  In order to respond to that request from ATU and to understand the customer implications, Metro is creating a driver screen program that will explore new options in the industry and assess each model's costs and impacts on our drivers and passengers."
Longtime Metro driver Cathie Bellipani said will believe it when she sees it.

According to Bellipani, the fatal shooting of Mark McLaughlin in 1998, the beating of Batey in 2010, the shooting of Depuis three years later, and the dozens of assaults captured on surveillance cameras in the past two years should have made driver safety a priority long before KIRO 7's investigation.

"Metro and King County think it's bad 'PR' to have those shields.  It's more important that they look good than to protect our operators," the now-retired Bellipani told KIRO 7. The former line supervisor said she's "really angry" more hasn't been done to protect Metro drivers, whom she calls "family."
Ultimately, Bellipani is worried that, after all this time and all the evidence of danger, there's only one thing that may force King County to install shields.

“I hate to say this, but I think it’s going to take video of somebody being killed.  I just don’t have much hope. And I don’t have much faith in Metro,” she said.

KIRO 7 asked Constantine’s office whether “PR” has ever had anything to do with King County’s decision to install safety shields. Spokesman Alex Fryer responded in an email to KIRO 7 reporter Amy Clancy, “We’ll let Metro continue to lead on answering your requests.”

Here is the full email response Amy Clancy received from Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer:

"Amy, Terry White's travel to New York City was to attend the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA's) annual meeting, which King County Metro regularly attends and had no relation to media coverage. Last year, King County Metro won APTA's Best Large Transit System in North America. While a sit-down interview isn't possible, we're able to provide the following emailed statement.

Every weekday, King County Metro provides 500,000 trips to help our residents get where they need to go. King County Metro’s number one priority is the safety and well-being of passengers, drivers, and other community members. While Metro is one of the safest large transit agencies in the country, unfortunately there have been some exceptions across the more than 1 billion total rides we’ve delivered over the past decade.

We’ve heard the clear request from the leadership of our labor partners at the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) that they would like Metro to install operator screens throughout our system. In order to respond to that request from ATU and to understand the customer implications, Metro is creating a driver screen program that will explore new options in the industry and assess each model’s costs and impacts on our drivers and passengers. In the past, Metro has conducted two pilots involving four different types of driver screens. While no model tested received broad support from drivers, Metro will continue to explore different designs that promote a safe environment for our operators and the public. We look forward to working closely with our labor partners on this work.

Driver shields are just one potential tool as we learn and innovate. To protect our drivers—as well as our passengers and community members—we’re committed to continuous improvement. In coordination with our partners in law enforcement, we’ve installed video cameras on buses both to serve as a deterrent and to hold offenders accountable, we’ve added transit police, and we’ve implemented campaigns including “All Are Welcome” and “Report It To Stop It” to ensure our buses are safe and welcoming.

King County Metro is committed to helping everyone in our county get where they need to go—safely, equitably, and sustainably."

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