For Detroit bus passengers, fear of crime part of trip

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Christopher Sampson is saving up to buy a car. Until then, he says he’s forced to take the bus — and live in fear.

Sampson, 21, relies on Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART buses to get around. During the ride on Detroit’s coaches, he said he doesn’t feel safe.

Riders board at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. Riders say public transportation is fraught with trouble, but officials say crime is down.

“There’s no order on the bus,” he said. “I’ve seen fights, and I even saw a shootout. I was going past Van Dyke and the bus got stopped because ... the guy on the bus was shooting from the bus at (police) officers. I try not to ride the bus as much as possible, but I got to.”

About 90,000 people ride DDOT buses on weekdays, 51,000 on Saturdays and 34,000 on Sundays, and many of them share Sampson’s worry. Crime — both inside coaches and around bus stops — has long been a concern for bus drivers and residents dependent on public transportation.

Transit police chief Ricky Brown said crime on buses is down. He said 16 assaults on drivers and passengers had been reported this year as of Nov. 20, compared with 23 during the same period last year.

Fred Westbrook, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents more than 400 DDOT drivers, said by his count there have been more than 20 reported assaults on drivers alone this year — and many more that went unreported — although he agreed the number of attacks has dipped.

“Crime is one of the hazards of the job,” Westbrook said. “When you have to deal with the public, and the public is not receiving effective, on-time service, they take it out on the first people they see, and who is that? The bus driver.

“In 99.9 percent of cases, the driver is not at fault. The passenger gets irate, and the next thing you know, there’s an assault, either verbal or physical. This happens every day, not to every driver, but it happens every day. Most of the verbal assaults are not reported.”

Also skewing DDOT’s crime figures: 911 calls of trouble on buses are usually dispatched to Detroit police, Deputy Chief David LeValley said.

According to Detroit police crime statistics, officers responded 494 times from Jan. 1 to Nov. 29 to reports of “DDOT trouble,” although all runs weren’t the result of crimes. Brown said 162 of those runs were medical emergencies.

“Sometimes calls are mischaracterized,” Brown said. “Maybe it’s put out as happening on a DDOT when it’s really on a SMART bus. Also, police get called for things like medical situations or people falling asleep on the bus — anything the driver feels they want to call to eliminate the problem, even if it’s a minor issue.”

LeValley said 107 Detroit police runs to DDOT buses resulted in crime reports being generated, although he said statistics showing the types of crimes investigated were not available. He also said reports of someone falling asleep would not be cause to fill out a crime report.

Westbrook said while crime on buses is down, it’s still a problem, in part because there are too few transit police. Brown said 27 Detroit Transit Police employees are assigned to DDOT patrols, and two cars that follow buses.

Kellie McCline has a son who takes the bus home from work at Meijer late at night, but advises him to stay at his dad’s house three blocks from a bus stop to arrive to safety more quickly. “Trouble can find you if you’re on the bus just being an innocent bystander,” she said.

Westbrook insisted that’s not enough.

“Remember, the transit police have three shifts, so when you break it down, you’re talking about a small number of officers available at any given time,” Westbrook said. “We have more than 200 buses out during peak times, so the number of transit officers isn’t close to enough.

“We’ve been crying out to (DDOT) to find some way — grants, anything — to get more officers,” Westbrook said.

Brown said he feels his officers have done a good job helping lower crime on buses, although he agreed he needs more bodies.

“I don’t think there’s a police chief in America who wouldn’t tell you they need more people,” Brown said. “I’m daily looking at grants and other sources to enhance our department. We’d like more people, more scout cars and more up-to-date equipment.”

In the meantime, many drivers and passengers fear for their safety when they board a DDOT bus.

“You see rowdy people all the time on the bus,” said Detroit resident Ray Gordon, 41. “Last year, there were two young girls who jumped another lady. The driver just sat there and didn’t do anything. I think he was scared. Nobody else did anything either.

“I don’t blame them; you can get shot getting in the middle of something. I just keep my head down and mind my own business.”

DDOT drivers have complained for years about the dangers they face. In 2007, 2011 and 2013, the bus drivers union staged walkouts because of safety issues. In September, union officials passed a resolution demanding the city address problems that included drivers being assaulted by passengers.

In November 2011, about 100 drivers refused to cover their routes because they were upset about the beating of a driver at the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown.

After that, then-Mayor Dave Bing announced improved security measures on bus routes, including random pullovers of buses in identified trouble spots, increased patrols at the Rosa Parks center and monthly meetings to address drivers’ safety concerns.

Two years later, after DDOT drivers picketed City Hall to protest crime on city buses, Detroit Police Chief James Craig, whose father was a Detroit bus driver, promised to create a transit safety unit to ride coaches. That ended in March 2014, when the Detroit Transportation Police took over patrolling buses.

In 2015, DDOT installed cameras on buses and at the Rosa Parks Transit Center, which Brown said has helped.

Westbrook said things have gotten better but added there’s room for improvement.

“Assaults were down earlier this year, but as we went through summer and fall, we got a rash of them,” he said, adding he didn’t have exact figures.

The fear of crime for passengers and their families isn’t confined to what happens on buses. Residents say waiting for the bus can be a dangerous proposition.

Ray Gordon rides the westbound Michigan DDOT coach. Gordon says he keeps to himself and ignores the “rowdy people” he sees on the buses he rides daily.

Kellie McCline, 44, said she fears for her children’s well-being on city buses.

“The buses are just not safe,” she said. “You don’t have to be a troublemaker to get into trouble on the bus. Trouble can find you if you’re on the bus just being an innocent bystander.

“I’ve just always been afraid that one of my kids is going to get caught up in something that they actually have absolutely nothing to do with, but because they’re a bystander and on the bus in the city, something may happen to them,” McCline said.

McCline’s son, who lives with her, works the afternoon shift at the Meijer store near Eight Mile and Woodward, and he catches the Eight Mile bus home when his shift ends at 11 p.m. She said she instructs her son to continue riding the bus until the end of the line at the Eastpointe border.

“He should be able to walk on his own from the bus stop home,” McCline said, “but I just don’t feel comfortable doing that. So I tell him, get off (the bus), walk across the street to Eastpointe, and your dad’s house is three blocks up ... stay there until the morning and then come home. That’s just the reality.”

Christopher Sampson said he especially is concerned with elderly people who rely on public transportation.

“There’s a lot of people who ride the bus that I feel shouldn’t,” Sampson said. “Older people, you know. There’s a lot of stuff going on ... it’s really dangerous.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

DDOT danger

Crimes on DDOT buses or at bus stops this year include:

■Two DDOT passengers were injured Nov. 29 after someone from a moving car shot into a bus near Hamilton and Oakman in Highland Park. The injuries were not life-threatening, police said.

An attempted robbery ended in a shooting Sept. 12 as a 33-year-old man exited a bus near McNichols and Runyon. Police said when the shooter found the victim had nothing to steal, he shot him anyway.

■On Aug. 12, a man on the Grand River bus exposed himself to a female bus driver before touching her breast.

■A 19-year-old man on Aug. 1 was shot in the hand while riding a Livernois bus following an argument with another passenger.

■An argument between two passengers that started July 28 on a DDOT bus escalated into violence after the two men deboarded the coach. Police said a 29-year-old man was using profanity on the bus, within earshot of an older man and his family. The two men argued, and when they got off the bus at the terminal at 8 Mile and State Fair, the older man shot the victim before running away, police said.

■On April 23, a man shot at a bus after the driver kicked him off. Police said a man and woman were arguing near Harper and Whittier on Detroit’s east side. The woman got onto a bus hoping to elude the man, but he followed her onto the coach. After the driver ordered the man to leave, he stepped off the bus and fired a shot.

■Police say on March 2, a DDOT bus was pulling into the Rosa Parks Transit Center’s loading area when an irate passenger assaulted the driver, who drove his bus onto a curb and struck a pole. No serious injuries were reported.

■ On March 6, a bus driver stabbed a passenger in his hand after she was attacked. The driver had tried to get the man to get off the bus, which prompted the attack, police said.