Detroit bus drivers 'antsy' after recent attacks
Detroit — The driver's seat was empty as the bus careened up the street and over the curb, finally rolling to a stop in a vacant lot near Mack and Bewick on the city's east side.
Nobody was at the wheel of the Detroit Department of Transportation coach during the Dec. 9 incident, in which multiple passengers reported injuries, because the bus driver had been yanked out of her seat and was being attacked by an unknown man, DDOT and police officials said.
The assault, which was captured on video, is part of a recent spike in attacks on Detroit bus drivers — and the latest in a string of safety concerns going back decades — according to Glenn Tolbert, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26, which represents more than 400 DDOT drivers.
"This past month has shown an uptick in assaults on drivers, and they're feeling a little antsy," Tolbert said.
"We've had everything from drivers being spit on to actually being punched," Tolbert said. "We definitely need more transit police — one car and eight officers for the entire city is not enough."
Detroit Transit Police Chief Ricky Brown acknowledged there's been a slight increase in reported attacks on bus drivers recently, but he said some of the reports turned out to be false.
"In reality, it’s a couple assaults (recently)," Brown said. "In one case, a driver thought someone pointed a can of pepper spray at them, but after we investigated it, that wasn't what happened. In another case, what was reported to be an assault was actually mutual combatants.
"We’ve transported over 20 million passengers since January, and so far this year we have 17 reported assaults, and many of them were minor," Brown said. "For example, a driver reported an assault because a guy moved her hand off the fare box.
"I'd say about 20% of the reports were legitimate assaults," Brown said. "When I say legit, I mean someone was punched, or kicked, or spat on, which we also consider an assault."
Brown said the 17 reported assaults are two more than the same period last year — and both the transit police chief and union president agree there have been troubling attacks on bus drivers in recent weeks.
Detroit police detectives at the 5th Precinct are reviewing video from the Dec. 9 incident in which the driver was pulled out of her seat and assaulted, Brown said.
Tolbert said the driver is still shaken by the incident.
"She's scarred mentally a little bit," Tolbert said. "She was dragged out of the seat while the coach was still running, so it was a bit traumatic. There were some passengers who went to the hospital."
Neither Tolbert nor Brown knew exactly how many passengers were treated, or the extent of their injuries.
In another recent incident, Tolbert said a Detroit Public Schools Community District student punched a driver.
"There were three students acting up, and the driver was trying to tell them to act right," Tolbert said. "He finally told them to get off the bus. Upon exiting, the last student punched the driver in the jaw and ran away.
"(The driver) is doing well," Tolbert said. "He went to the hospital, but he came right back to work. He didn't miss any time."
Brown said that attack prompted a meeting with school district police officials and students.
"We went to a school and had an assembly," Brown said, although he declined to identify the school. "We wanted to make sure the students know: The driver could be one of your relatives. We made it personal."
Brown said he released video of the incident to school police, who are trying to identify the attacker. DPS Police Chief Ralph Godbee did not respond to a request for comment.
Gerard Jackson, who rides the Dexter and Grand River buses several times a week, said he hasn't seen any problems.
"I've never seen any fights — nothing," he said.
Jackson is among the some 90,000 people who ride DDOT buses on weekdays, while 51,000 ride on Saturdays and 34,000 on Sundays, according to city officials.
For decades, Detroit's bus drivers have complained about feeling unsafe on the job, while the issue of police patrols on buses has gotten tangled up in disputes between law enforcement agencies and unions. In one case, money allocated for officer patrols came up missing.
After several assaults on drivers and passengers, Detroit Police in 1976 instituted the "Bluebirds" program, in which 46 undercover police officers patrolled buses equipped with special "trouble lights" designed to alert police. The program was discontinued in 2005 because of budget cuts.
Since then, drivers have periodically protested safety conditions on DDOT buses.
In 2013, more than 150 drivers called in sick and shut down the system because of concerns about assaults on drivers. After meeting with union officials, Detroit Police Chief James Craig promised to allocate uniformed officers to ride buses.
A year later, the city expanded the duties of the Transit Police to include patrolling DDOT buses, in addition to the People Mover. Transit police also handle the QLine rail service.
Detroit's bus drivers in November 2011 refused to come to work to protest an attack on a driver at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. Former mayor Dave Bing avoided a lengthy shutdown by promising to increase security at the transit center and along bus routes, saying officers would patrol buses.
Four years earlier, on May 24, 2007, DDOT drivers staged a one-day walkout after multiple assaults on drivers. It set in motion a confusing chain of events involving city police and the Wayne County Sheriff's Office.
Hours after the walkout, then-Deputy Mayor Anthony Adams announced the sheriff's office had committed to patrolling the city's buses. But sheriff's officials disputed that announcement, insisting no deal was in place.
Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pushed for nearly a year to implement a controversial plan to allow the sheriff's office to use a three-year, $11.7 million federal grant, awarded to the city, to patrol buses.
After much wrangling, the City Council on May 10, 2007, voted down the plan because members felt Detroit's officers should patrol the buses — but the day after the May 24, 2007, bus driver walkout, the City Council voted again and approved the measure to allow deputies to patrol coaches.
The vote was immediately challenged by the Detroit Police Officers Association, which claimed its officers should handle the patrols. Arbitrator George Roumell Jr. ruled in favor of the DPOA in August 2008, ordering that the sheriff's patrols be ended by June 30, 2009.