Attacks On MBTA Bus Drivers Are On The Rise

Spitting is the most common type of attack on MBTA bus drivers, accounting for 40 percent of attacks. (bradlee9119/Flickr)

Spitting is the most frequent type of assault on MBTA bus drivers, accounting for 40 percent of attacks. (bradlee9119/Flickr)

BOSTON — The number of violent assaults on MBTA bus drivers has been soaring this year. So far this year, there have been 50 attacks on drivers, compared to 33 this time last year.

MBTA officials aren’t sure what’s causing the increase in attacks on bus drivers, but are hoping more technology, new legislation and increased public awareness will help.

There are more than 180 MBTA bus routes in eastern Massachusetts, with 1,100 buses driven by some 6,000 drivers, carrying 400,000 people a day.

Transit Police Effort

Joseph O′Connor, Superintendent-in-Chief of the MBTA Transit Police. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Joseph O′Connor, Superintendent-in-Chief of the MBTA Transit Police. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Joseph O’Connor, superintendent-in-chief of the MBTA Transit Police, leads the battle against assaults on MBTA drivers.

“It’s very dangerous. These operators are operating heavy vehicles with passengers on public ways, and any assault on an operator really puts the public as a whole at risk,” O’Connor explained. “We put our officers where the problems are — it’s the whole cops-on-dots philosophy of where we should put police officers.”

But increasingly there are more dots than cops. O’Connor believes growing frustration with fare hikes and service cuts plays a role.

“This is where we see quite often where the assaults come from, where an operator is trying to collect the fare from someone and, for whatever reason, the person will assault the bus operator — and in quite a few instances we see they’re spitting on the operator,” O’Connor said.

With just 271 transit police officers, the MBTA is increasingly turning to science to stop the violence.

“We also instituted a program where we collect DNA now,” O’Connor said. “We’ll submit that DNA to a state lab for analysis to see if at some point we can make contact between the suspect and the assault and solve those cases.”

Types Of Assaults

"Don't touch the driver. Violence toward a bus driver is against the law. We will prosecute," reads the MBTA seat decal in this mock-up designed to show what it would look like if a person were seated in front. (Courtesy of the MBTA)

“Don’t touch the driver. Violence toward a bus driver is against the law. We will prosecute,” reads the MBTA seat decal in this mock-up designed to show what it would look like if a person were seated in front. (MBTA)

A rider was sentenced last week to three months in prison for choking a driver. But, for some reason, spitting is the most frequent assault, accounting for 40 percent of the attacks on MBTA bus drivers.

“It’s probably the most degrading thing that you can have happen to you as a human being,” said John Lee, who drove an MBTA bus for 13 years and now serves as president of the Carmen’s Union Local 589, which represents MBTA operators.

“I would rather myself be hit than spit on. It’s something that should never be tolerated,” he said.

Lee detailed a variety of assaults.

“We have people — they cut you, they bite you. We’ve had people take urine in cups and throw them at drivers. And bodily fluids is a real concern,” he said. “I have a member who was assaulted. And it was learned that the female had hepatitis C. So now my member, who’s a single mom, had to be tested for hepatitis C, not knowing if she’s contracted this disease through just simply coming to work and doing her job. It has to stop.”

The Loophole

But there’s a problem, Lee says.

Under current Massachusetts law, unless a transit officer actually sees the attack in progress, there’s little police can do except issue a summons and hope the suspect shows up in court.

“This is the scenario: I can have a 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound female driving a bus, have a 6-foot-4 male, 250 pounds, smash her across her face, blood, visual evidence of an assault. Witnesses on the bus, when the police arrive, point to the individual that did it, and they cannot arrest him,” he said. “That’s reality.”

Proposed Legislation

State Rep. Jim Miceli, of Tewksbury, has introduced legislation that would allow transit police to arrest a suspect based on statements from the riders and driver — even if the officer did not actually witness the assault.

“I just felt they should be protected,” he said.

Screenshot of the MBTA's See Say App.

Screenshot of the MBTA’s See Say app.

Miceli’s proposal came after a particularly vicious attack in March when a mob of a dozen or more young people beat up a bus driver in Dorchester at 1 a.m. So far, only two suspects have been arrested.

“You’ve got people whose lives are in jeopardy, so to me it was a no-brainer,” Miceli said.

Public Awareness Campaign

Recently the MBTA began broadcasting public service announcements on radio. And, as part of a public awareness campaign, there are new signs on the backs of some bus seats, which make it look like the rider in front is handcuffed.

The T has also introduced their See Say App for smartphones. Superintendent-in-Chief O’Connor said riders can use it if they they see an attack to send text messages to dispatchers.

“One of the unique features of that is they can also snap a picture of offenders or people that are creating problems and, in that app, it shuts off the flash so they can do that anonymously,” O’Connor explained.

Prevention And Surveillance

The MBTA will soon begin a pilot program installing barriers on some buses to protect drivers, but most buses already have an emergency switch that operators can hit if they’re attacked. It sets off flashing green lights outside of their vehicles.

Some buses — a third of the MBTA’s fleet — also have video cameras. The footage of assaults is posted on the websites of the MBTA and the Carmen’s Union. More buses will get cameras when money for the financially strapped transit service becomes available.

Lee is all for cameras but said they can give drivers a false sense of security.

“Videos are not here to prevent anything. Any kind of attack, any kind of vandalism, any kind of anything. All’s a video does is record it so that they know who did, they know how it was done,” Lee said. “I can only liken it to our terrorist attack on Marathon Monday — there were cameras everywhere. It didn’t stop it from occurring, but the use of those cameras allowed our agencies to go after of those who did it and find them.”

Civil Liberties At Stake?

But post-Boston Marathon bombing, there are growing concerns about overreacting and relying too much on surveillance technology.

Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts gestures toward a surveillance camera at an MBTA station. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Kade Crockford, of the ACLU of Massachusetts, gestures toward a MBTA surveillance camera. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

“It’s not simply, ‘Do we want more cameras on the buses today?’ ” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Project at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It’s ‘Do we want more cameras on the buses today and do we want them to be networked and do we want them to have incredibly powerful technologies built into the back end that enable the government to identify everybody who walks onto the bus simply using their face?’ There’s a reason that we don’t tattoo our Social Security numbers on our foreheads, right? But face recognition obliterates that distinction.”

So far, that technology is not being used on the MBTA, but Crockford said that in order to ensure the safety of drivers, riders and civil liberties, there has to be a serious public discussion. And that’s something that the president of the union and the superintendent of the transit police agree has to happen.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • gardenia

    I would strongly urge that videos, photos etc. be used on all busses, trains etc. to identify the aforementioned criminals. MBTA service is not a free ride or free-for-all.
    It is time for CIVILITY!

    • J__o__h__n

      As long as they are silent. Adding to noise pollution during the commute isn’t a solution.

  • J__o__h__n

    Shouldn’t the “focus on the dots” strategy also appy to the public service announcements? Why should subway riders have to listen to them when the problem is on the buses? The human filth that thinks it is OK to spit on people aren’t going to be swayed by anything other than prosecution.
    What is the point of MBTA police if they can only arrest if they personally witnessed something? Is the bill going to allow MBTA police to arrest people who assault riders? If the MBTA police have such limited powers, I don’t feel safe no matter how many cameras or annoying public service announcements are added.

  • Joe

    All seriousness aside, i thought the scenario they presented was kind of humorous. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 5ft 100 pound bus driver in Boston.

    • Delta Pearl

      That’s so true! The other day I was praying to get to my stop before the 400+ pound bus driver had a heart attack. Don’t they have any physical standards? Ha!

  • dz0

    Thank you, ACLU, for standing up for what’s right even when it’s not popular (as I’m sure your position on this issue will not be).

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      i love the aclu but it seems less like the ACLU has been less successful at stopping them than the budget

      • dz0

        Haha, true!

  • Stephen Marts

    So… Let me get this straight. Instead of dedicating funds and resources to fixing the actual problem (i.e. the horrible mismanagement and lack of anything more than bare-bones maintenance w/r/t vehicles and infrastructure), the MBTA is going to throw a bunch of money at ‘technology’ and hope the problem goes away? Right, because CCTV and an ‘app’ are really going to improve reliability of service, reduce the ever-increasing fares, and make MBTA employees on all levels actually start taking responsibility for the piss-poor service they offer. They’ve spent the last decade putting their ridership over a barrel, just pushing and pushing and pushing; now that people are finally starting to snap under the strain, they’re suddenly mystified.

    If anything, the ‘see something, say something’ campaign and all this pressure for average citizens to rat out their peers ought to be instituted in the MBTA offices. Maybe then we’d see some real crime prevention.

  • donniethebrasco

    All of those Asians and Jews need to be less violent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    so many reasons not to ride the bus.

  • Downtownresident83

    Here is my confusion. Nobody ever talks about what rude A-holes most of the bus drivers are. I take the bus everyday and it’s pretty rare I meet a friendly one. If they just smiled once in a while people wouldn’t want to hit them.

  • noone special

    I guess it’s just a coincidence that Orwellian PSA’s have been broadcast in voice and text on the T all week that happen to deal with this very subject. They are going to arrest us for our safety! Oooohhh I can’t wait!.

    Also as another commenter said , some bus drivers are power tripping. I have a friend that drives a us and I can’t even repeat some of the evil stuff he does to passengers… ON PURPOSE.

    Either way this article is simply a press release for the current governmental brain washing surveillance regime.

    Oh what’s this…

    “Under current Massachusetts law, unless a transit officer actually sees the attack in progress, there’s little police can do except issue a summons and hope the suspect shows up in court.”

    That’s not what there PSA’s say… Whose lying?

    Next up, legislation to give transit police arrest powers. They will slip some other goodies in there too. You can bank on that.

    • CaliforniaProf

      This is where cameras really can help–both drivers and and passengers will be on their best behavior if they know it’s being recorded.

  • MBTA.driver.smackdown

    What about rude, even physical, drivers….like the green “C” trolley driver who repeatedly swatted and smacked an arm back at a man….who simply walked towards the driver area, as the trolley came to a stop?

    The man (who seemed new to the country) was merely complying with driver instructions to come to the front to exit.

  • boyadog

    Seems as thaw all the Buses have there brakes tight Ive seen people thrown to the floor .. I’m sorry but I don’t owe the black bus drivers a thing so lighten up

  • isolotus

    Look at the salaries the MBTA pays. 145K a year for a track repairman? Come on. Typical Full-time Operators make 70K. MBTA Cops make 150K. We wonder why the T is broke?

  • isolotus

    If they pay these drivers any more $, I’m going to bring my own cup of urine on the bus.

  • isolotus

    by the way…looking over all the “reactions” from twitter I’d have to say that most of those reacting don’t even ride the bus. “Did you hear about the crazy poor people on the bus attacking drivers? OMG!” What’s terrible is that this article in no way addresses the passive-aggressive hate-filled bus drivers who view us passengers as cattle. Sure there are plenty of good, upstanding, genuinely nice bus drivers, but there’s some real a$$holes too. All of these drivers make a good chunk of change, even the part-timers so I’m pretty skeptical of this WBUR report and the claims made by the MBTA. And the Miceli bill is just plain unconstitutional. So there, done commenting.

  • Delta Pearl

    Attacking a bus driver is unthinkable. It must not ever happen!
    I have lived in Austin, New York City, London and Boston and I rode the bus in each place..I have NEVER met bus drivers so obnoxious, rude, unprofessional and downright mean as the bus drivers employed by the MBTA. No excuses.

    And another thing, the bus brakes are calibrated so tightly that the buses don’t just stop, they SLAM TO A HALT. This is rough on everyone, but especially on the elderly, disabled and small children. In all the cities above the buses GLIDE to a halt. I know this doesn’t have to be the case. Please see to this!

    • isolotus

      The bus brakes are not at fault, it’s the drivers’ feet on them. They enjoy making us lurch around the bus like we’re at sea in a storm.

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