New Metro bus cameras capture violence against passengers

KIRO 7 has uncovered dozens of violent assaults on King County Metro buses, most often targeting drivers.

However, multiple passengers have also been attacked.

Three years after King County promised to increase safety by investing nearly $3 million in on-board surveillance systems, 91% of all Metro coaches have been equipped with cameras: now there is visual evidence they are not preventing attacks.

In December 2018, KIRO 7 filed a public disclosure request and received dozens of videos that show an alarming number of assaults against passengers in less than two years.

Surveillance recorded on August 2, 2019 details the attack of a man boarding an E-Line bus on Aurora Avenue North at North 105th Street in Seattle. The video shows the victim as he is suddenly shot in the face with a flare gun "at point-blank range" according to court documents. Witnesses can be heard on the surveillance video screaming "Oh my God! He's on fire!"

According to King County Superior Court filings, the victim's "face and head immediately erupted into flames and smoke." The suspect -- a convicted felon from Arkansas -- was arrested, charged with assault and remains in the King County Jail in downtown Seattle. That defendant was booked 12 times since 2017 and has at least four failure to appear warrants since 2018, according to charging documents.

Another video obtained by KIRO 7 shows a male bus passenger repeatedly punched in the face while on-board a busy Metro coach during the afternoon rush on January 23, 2018. Witnesses can be heard screaming for help -- "Assault!  Get him, get him!" -- as the suspect runs from the scene.

According to the security incident report submitted by the driver of that coach, and obtained by KIRO 7 through an additional public disclosure request, "I went to the back of the bus to see a man ... in a pool of blood.  Apparently, his head had been busted open."

The victim needed surgery to save his eye.

The suspect was detained, charged with second-degree assault and sentenced to 155 days in jail -- but was back on the streets until this past spring, when he was booked for another alleged assault.

Both of these attacks on passengers were two of more than 30 disturbing incidents recorded on Metro surveillance cameras in the past two years that include assault, harassment, gun violence, groping, indecent exposure and masturbation.

The sexual harassment of a woman waiting for a bus at the Burien Transit Center also was captured on camera. The surveillance video recorded on September 4, 2019 shows a man exposing and touching his private parts while seated next to a woman, shortly after he's seen injecting something into his arm.

According to King County Superior Court documents, the suspect -- "a complete stranger" -- "groped the woman and told her that he was going to ‘rape' her."  Because of the man's extensive criminal history, he was charged with second-degree assault and indecent exposure and remains behind bars in lieu of $125,000 bail.

Jennifer -- who asked KIRO 7 not to reveal her last name or route -- said she has been a twice-daily Metro bus commuter for 30-years and has witnessed multiple examples of danger on-board.

"I've had people yell and yell at the top of their lungs," she recently claimed while waiting for the bus near Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Jennifer said she leaves her crowded coach when she fears for her safety.

"I can think of five times in a year when I've felt unsafe," she told KIRO 7 then added "it's made me think of getting a car."

Kellie Kirkpatrick rides the Rapid Ride E -Line in North Seattle and said she also wants to "get me a car."

"You take your life in your own hands when you get on these buses," Kirkpatrick told KIRO 7.

That proved true on August 9, 2018.

According to the driver's security incident report obtained by KIRO 7, two men argued on-board Metro Route 128. When the driver stopped the coach at Southwest Morgan Street and 35th Avenue Southwest, both passengers got off. One opened fire, killing the other.

The driver wrote that he could see "three bullet holes in his back and around his chest area."

In surveillance video of the incident, multiple gunshots can be heard, along with bus passengers exclaiming "Oh my goodness!  Did you just shoot that mother f ---er?" And "get an ambulance please! Someone just got shot!"

A teenage suspect was arrested by the Seattle Police Department.

The president of King County Metro Drivers' Union ATU 587 said during his decades as a Metro operator, he saw many passengers armed with guns.

"When you see things like that, it's that quick rush of adrenaline that makes you realize that quickly, it could have been you," Ken Price told KIRO 7 during a recent interview.

And Price believes King County could do more to protect passengers and drivers.  "We need more police presence" on buses.

Tiffany Marx agrees. The regular bus commuter said she would like to see "security that was just riding the bus at all times, especially on the more vulnerable routes."

Jennifer would also like to see more uniformed officers on-board because she feels she is "on edge to protect" herself.

KIRO 7 took those concerns to King County Metro Deputy General Manager Terry White, who explained that more transit officers will most likely be added as the system grows.

"There's a reason we were voted the top system in the nation, but we're never going to rest on our laurels."

"We're going to continue to work the system to try to make it better than it is" White promised.

KIRO 7 has also learned, many riders mistakenly believe bus drivers will physically intervene to protect them. In one surveillance video, a woman calls to the driver and tells him she feels threatened by an apparently intoxicated passenger while riding Route 33 near College Way North and North 97th Street.

"Hey bus driver?" the woman can be heard saying. The driver answers "that would be me."

"I may be threatened," she responds.

Regular rider Dana told KIRO 7 "that I can yell out to the driver that there are unsafe things that are happening."

Liis, who also rides Metro regularly, said the drivers "have always been really well-trained to look after passenger safety first."

However, KIRO 7 has learned that, despite what bus riders believe, drivers are not responsible for passenger safety beyond getting them from point A to point B, according to White.  ​​​​​​

"We have transit police. We don't need our operators becoming transit police," he said.

When asked whether drivers are expected to intervene on behalf of passengers in any way at any time, White responded that bus operators "should call for support."

Even though drivers have a hands-off policy, Metro has accepted financial responsibility for operators who failed to intervene on behalf of passengers. According to documents obtained by KIRO 7, King County has paid $396,989.18 to settle claims filed by riders injured during on-board assaults in the past 10 years.

Former Metro driver Steve Boots -- who has also been assaulted while driving for Metro -- told KIRO 7 he was often frustrated by his inability to help.

"If you step out of your seat, you're subject to termination," Boots said.

The drivers' union president confirmed most riders have "the perception that we should be rendering assistance, and they ask us quite often," Price told KIRO 7, but "we're not allowed to."

E-Line passenger Sean Gaston was disturbed to hear that's the policy.

"Then whose job is it?" he asked. "Are we all just supposed to turn a blind eye and say, it's no one's job on this bus?"

Apparently, it is no one's job on the bus.

White said whenever passengers feel threatened, drivers should call for a supervisor and support from King County Metro Transit Police. Drivers can "hit an emergency button, they can call the control center, we will send out a supervisor to de-escalate the situation. They have a host of tools they can use."

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