The heckling started as soon as Dale Kinsman boarded the Main Street MAX bus one recent morning in downtown Kansas City.
“We normally don’t let KU people on,” said Erich Hellerich, a Kansas City police officer working off-duty security for the transit system.
“Hey, watch it, watch it,” responded Kinsman, who was wearing a University of Kansas shirt.
He slipped into a seat near Hellerich and continued the friendly banter, telling the officer he wasn’t just a KU fan but a Kansas City sports fan. He described all his tattoos as he pointed to them.
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Such interactions are common when police officers ride city buses, said Hellerich, who is one of 39 Kansas City officers who provide off-duty security work for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
Combined, the officers usually log as many as 100 hours a week in various security roles for an agency that provided 15 million passenger trips last year on its buses.
Although officials say the buses provide a safe mode of transportation, fights sometimes happen. Last year, riders spat at or assaulted drivers in other ways 19 times. In December, police used a stun gun to subdue a man who pulled down his pants and began masturbating while making a lewd demand of the female driver.
So police and transit officials are working to make riding safer.
The ATA has sent about 460 drivers through assault prevention training, is installing 75 security partitions on buses to protect drivers and plans to hire a full-time public safety manager with a law enforcement background.
And in a new collaboration, the Police Department recently agreed to dedicate two on-duty officers to bus protection duties. The officers, who will patrol in marked cars, are expected to start work in mid-April.
“It’s important that our citizens have confidence in the system,” Chief Darryl Forté said when the agreement was signed in January.
Their efforts will supplement security already provided by the off-duty officers, who patrol transit centers and bus stops in addition to sometimes riding the buses. The off-duty officers are used where they are most needed, an ATA spokeswoman said. Because the hours are not tracked, the ATA cannot say how much of their time is spent on buses.
Having the off-duty officers on board means a lot, said Sheila Porter, a 16-year ATA driver who has been spat at twice. Once, a rider tried to hit her with a cane.
“What I’ve seen is a lot of verbal abuse, which in my opinion, if they will cuss you out they will hit you or try to attempt to hit you or spit on you,” Porter said. “For me, I try to stop it as soon as I hear profanity, so I pull over and call a supervisor.”
Sometimes, people having a bad day take it out on the bus driver, she said. Others might be on drugs, while some just have a bad attitude.
“Everybody acts right when they see a police officer on the bus,” she said.
When he’s on the buses, Hellerich rides for 90 minutes to two hours at a time. He talks to the riders and bus drivers, if they are interested.
“It’s very laid-back. It really is,” Hellerich said. “You ride the bus, and everything usually comes into place.”
Hellerich sees his role as a visible deterrent. That keeps some bad apples off the bus. Or when they ride, they act civilized.
“I think it’s needed,” said Kinsman, the rider with the KU shirt. “It cuts down on a lot of the drama and fighting.”
Two other recent passengers, Jefferson McCully and Leslie Taylor, said they would like to see more officers riding buses.
Both Kansas City residents have witnessed fights. Taylor said she saw a woman throw a soft drink at a driver once.
“It made me mad that she would do that to a sweet bus driver,” she said. “I wanted to get off and chase her down … but I didn’t.”
Hellerich said he likes the off-duty work because it gives him the chance to do something different from his usual hands-on police work.
He sees being on the bus as a way for officers to interact with the public in a positive way while serving and protecting.
“When we talk to people on the bus, it makes them feel more relaxed,” he said. “It makes them feel safe.
“They know that some of the bad elements that are in the city aren’t going to get on the bus, and they can have a safer trip to their destination.”