New metro cameras capture violence against drivers

SEATTLE — KIRO 7 has uncovered dozens of violent assaults on-board Metro buses, three years after King County promised to increase safety by investing $2,979,915 to retrofit 353 coaches with on-board surveillance cameras. With 91% of the system’s 1538 buses now equipped with camera coverage, there is also now visual evidence of how dangerous those buses still are, especially for drivers.

KIRO 7 filed a Public Disclosure Request in December of 2018 and received dozens of videos that showan alarming amount of violence against drivers in less than two years, including the April 7, 2018, attack on Steve Boots.

That was the day a bus passenger attacked the 10-year veteran Metro driver while armed with a large blade.

“I had no idea this woman was coming out with a knife,” Boots told KIRO 7 in a recent interview.  “I just tried to keep my feet in front of me, so she didn’t have a chance to cut my arteries.”  Boots believed the woman was trying to kill him, and the video obtained by KIRO 7 shows her repeatedly lunging and stabbing at the driver.

Chris Johnson knows the feeling. “I’ve had a gun pointed at me, the trigger pulled several times,” Johnson said about his time behind the wheel. “I’ve had a knife held to my neck. The guy actually swung the knife at me several times.”

Johnson -- who drove a Metro bus for nearly 10 years -- no longer does.

Boots still works for Metro as an electrician, but won't ever get behind the wheel of a bus again because of the time he was nearly stabbed and because of other incidents revealed in nearly three dozen videos obtained by KIRO 7 that clearly show how drivers are verbally harassed, spat at and sexually and physically assaulted.

Both Boots and Johnson are also frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of consequences for violence against drivers -- even though signs posted on-board buses warn "any act of violence against a bus driver is a felony."

“The King County prosecutor elected not to pursue this as a felony; knocked it down to a gross misdemeanor and gave her counselling,” Boots said of his case and attacker. “How is this not assault with a deadly weapon? You cut her loose, what happens to the next person? What if they’re not as lucky as I was?”

Since being released from jail and ordered to counselling for the attack against Boots, King County Court documents reveal the woman was arrested again this past July for possessing a stolen firearm.

Again she was released from jail.

Johnson believes the man who held a knife to his throat also got off easy.  “He got seven months for that,” Johnson told KIRO 7.  “He should have got years because I still have nightmares about that to this very day.”

According to King County Metro records that KIRO 7 obtained after filing another Public Disclosure Request, nearly 230 assault-related injury claims have been filed against Metro by drivers since 2009, leading to pay-outs of more than $2.5 million.

Ken Price, president of King County Metro Drivers' Union ATU 587, said, “Once a week at least, maybe daily” a driver is assaulted while on the job. “Our drivers tend to sometimes not even report it because it’s pretty common.”

The videos obtained by KIRO 7 represent only reported assaults, including an incident from June of 2019 where a passenger threatened to blow-up a Metro coach in downtown Seattle and shoot its driver. 
In the video, the passenger repeatedly threatens the driver and says, "You wanna f--- die?  I got a gun on me right now" as he reaches for his pocket.

According to court records, the suspect in that incident was arrested, charged with harassment, but released from jail.  And it doesn't surprise Price that the man who threatened the driver is identified in police documents as "homeless."

“You can be a rolling hotel out there,” Price told KIRO 7.

According to the Drivers' Union president, there has been a noticeable uptick in homeless, substance abusing and mentally ill passengers on-board Metro buses in recent years.

Riders have noticed, too.

Regular Seattle-based bus rider Tim Brothwell told KIRO 7 he’s seen “open alcohol use, drug use” on-board Metro buses.

A woman named Liis, who spoke with KIRO 7 in West Seattle and preferred not to provide her last name, said her friend “had an experience where a gun was pulled by a mentally ill person on the bus.”

“It’s just the drunk ones or the real mentally ill ones,” that concern Sean Gaston.  The daily E-Line commuter expressed further frustration by telling KIRO 7 the environment on-board many Metro buses is “very uncomfortable because I’m having to pay $2.75 to get on the E-Line and then they don’t have to pay anything, and they bring their crime and then no one does anything about it at all.”

Price and Boots claim King County Metro won't allow drivers to demand payment and they believe the violence captured on surveillance video is the result.

“A great many people don’t pay,” Boots, the former driver, said.  He estimates “fully half of the passengers I’d pick up during the day wouldn’t pay.”  That number is closer to 80% on the A-Line between Tukwila and Federal Way, according to Boots.  “If you have an altercation with somebody over a fare dispute, you’re subject to termination.  That’s policy,” he said.

Price believes King County Metro is “catering to the homeless and the substance abuse folks out there and we’re having to deal with it, with no training.”  The Drivers’ Union President would like to see his members trained -- not only to deal with the mentally ill and substance abusers -- but also in de-escalation techniques.  He also wants each Metro coach installed with a shield to protect drivers, like those Pierce Transit is currently adding.

King County has been exploring the idea for 10 years, but there’s been no decision on installation yet according to Terry White, deputy general Manager of King County Metro. White told KIRO 7 that none of the shield options tested so far have been good enough to install systemwide. “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,” he said during a recent interview with KIRO 7.

According to White, not all bus operators even want the shields installed because they would limit positive interaction with passengers.  “It’s important that we balance the safety of the operator going home with that physical connection, relationship, customer service-oriented connection to the customer,” he said.

When it comes to installing shields, White said, “We’re taking our time, working with our operators.

We’re at a place now where, if and when we find something that’s workable, then we’ll work on that.”

However, the drivers KIRO 7 spoke with believe the process of installing shields is taking entirely too long, especially considering the violence they continue to face, as shown on surveillance video. And Price, the union president, said drivers can be fired for leaving their seats -- even to fend off an attack, something White denies.

White also claimed that while ridership and miles traveled by Metro coaches are up, assaults on drivers are actually down. According to data provided by Metro, there were 82 assaults on operators in 2018, down from 181 in 2008.

However, those attacks are now captured on camera.

White also explained that King County Metro Transit police do patrol coaches and “as we grow the system, we want to continue to grow our security and police force along with that.”

As deputy general manager, White reviews all surveillance video that shows attacks on drivers -- and passengers -- and the 32-year Metro employee admitted to KIRO 7 that “it can be tough to look at some of the videos.”

However, over the billion rides White said Metro has provided in the past 10 years, “We’re really proud of our safety record. I think we’re nationally recognized for what we do in terms of safety,” but “We’re never going to rest on our laurels. We’re going to continue to work the system and try to make it better than it is. I believe it is a safe system. I use it. I would encourage others to use it.”

Boots disagrees.

“There are no rules. There’s no enforcement,” Boots said.

“I wouldn’t have my loved ones riding in that environment.  It’s not safe” he said.

KIRO 7 has learned that drivers aren’t the only ones being targeted.

Dozens of surveillance videos clearly show that passengers are also at risk.

Those videos and the results of that investigation, will air on KIRO 7 Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

Before KIRO 7's investigation aired on Monday, Metro's Deputy General Manager Terry White sent this bulletin to employees. Read the full text here.

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