A shooting, a stabbing and passengers doused in gasoline — it was a violent July on Kansas City’s Metro buses.
By ZACH MURDOCK and TREY WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star
That string of high-profile incidents has prompted police, bus executives and drivers to form a small task force that is discussing ways to protect drivers and passengers.
Last week, about 100 bus drivers discussed the recent violence at a meeting with police officers and transit authority executives, said Cindy Baker, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority spokesperson.
The meeting was a chance for drivers to voice their concerns and make suggestions after the three incidents in July that threatened passengers and drivers.
Last month, a young man was shot and others were injured by glass shards after an argument on a bus. Two young men beat and stabbed a bus driver in a dispute over a fare. And a woman doused passengers with gasoline after an argument and tried to light a match.
Such violence is rare, especially three incidents so close together, Baker said.
Already, police presence has been increased on buses.
The transit authority has a longstanding program of hiring off-duty, uniformed police officers to ride buses, Baker said, and now it is increasing that number of officers and the number of hours they are riding.
The ATA is hiring seven more off-duty officers. In all, the 40 officers will log nearly 900 hours per month on Metro buses, a 25 percent increase.
The task force is also considering other options.
“Everything is on the table,” Baker said. “We’re looking across the country at safety measures that other systems are using.”
Some measures could include more driver training, protective plastic glass barriers around drivers and a text line for passengers to report an incident while it happens without having to make an audible call.
The ATA may also reactivate an alert system that displays a distress message on the board that typically displays a bus’s destination, Baker said. Other motorists or passersby could see that message and call the police, but the feature was deactivated on Metro buses because the button that triggers the message is too easy to hit accidentally, causing unnecessary police responses.
“There’s no easy answers. Crime is happening everywhere,” Baker said. “The (incidents) we can control the most are the ones involving operators, so that’s going to be our beginning focus.”
Initially, the transit authority will work from the inside out, she said.
“Quite honestly, the training may not be sexy, but training and retraining may be the most important thing,” Baker said.
There are no easy fixes, said Jonathan P. Walker, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union’s local chapter.
“Each case is different,” said Walker, who has driven buses for 40 years and is working with the ATA and its task force on safety.
In his experience, nearly all incidences of violence begin with verbal assaults, and the key is to design a system in which bus drivers and passengers can recognize that situation and defuse fights or confrontations before they get out of hand.
It’s only a handful of troublemakers who cause problems, and consistent prevention and consequences would help hold those incidents at bay.
One day this week, Devonte Cole sat on the corner of 11th Street and Grand Boulevard waiting for the bus that would take him home.
Cole said he has seen at least two fights while riding the bus. In one, police had to be called.
“I’m not going to stop riding,” said Cole, who uses the bus to get to his job, his neighborhood and everywhere in between. It’s his only form of transportation.
“Hopefully, people just act like they have some sense,” he said.
Violence on buses and toward bus drivers has become a problem across North America, said Larry Hanley, international president for the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents public transit workers in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s been more than an uptick (in bus violence). It’s been more like an avalanche over the course of several years,” said Hanley, who drove public buses for three decades.
One of the problems he points to is the growing frustration among economically stressed people who have a distrust and dislike of government. He said passengers generally see the drivers as representatives of the government agencies that raise fares.
Some cities, Hanley said, are beginning to take these incidents seriously and have taken measures to try to ensure the safety of drivers and passengers.
In Kansas City, Police Sgt. John Frazier said the task force needs to do whatever it can to improve safety.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Frazier said, “but we just want the drivers and passengers to feel safe.”