Austin bus driver punched in the face after asking rider to leave

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — “Are you going to sleep or what?”

The interaction between a passenger and a CapMetro driver started with this question. The driver told the man he couldn’t sleep and ride through the same route again. He urged him to take the next bus.

The man pleaded with the driver to let him ride, then began yelling. Video shows the man strike the plastic barrier separating him and the bus driver, before removing the barrier entirely.

“Get your b**** a** off this bus,” the man screamed to the bus operator with hands positioned in front of his face. The exchange seemed to stop abruptly once the bus operator warned the man: “You’ll go to jail if you assault me.”

Passenger yells at CapMetro bus operator (CapMetro video)

But minutes later when the bus operator walked off the bus, the man is seen on a bus surveillance video throwing a punch at the bus driver. The ordeal ended with the bus driver hitting back and the passenger laid out on the sidewalk.   

The scenario is one out of at least 55 cases of assault on bus operators recorded by CapMetro since 2018, nine of which happened in 2021 as of September.

Other videos obtained by the KXAN investigates team shows bus operators enduring threats of physical violence — and sucker punches from angry passengers.

The assaults are not limited to CapMetro employees. One video shows a passenger pushing an elderly woman to the ground as they both try to enter the bus. (The man seen on the video was later charged with a felony for injury to an elderly person, according to an arrest affidavit.)

The assaults on riders and bus operators are part of the reason the agency’s board approved a plan to create a police force dedicated solely to CapMetro’s transit system. The agency has utilized off-duty Austin Police Department officers for part-time security along their routes since 1988.  

In a March 2021 report from the American Public Transit Association, a peer review panel said the growth of the transit system over the last three decades rendered the current policing model “inadequate.”

As a part of the current public safety model, CapMetro officials say it’s up to law enforcement to determine whether an assault has been committed. According to the agency, “when APD officers respond to an incident or at CapMetro vehicle stop, they will investigate and decide if any criminal activity took place.”

But in its report, the APTA peer review panel noted APD officers were in some cases unfamiliar with transit-specific laws. (A CapMetro spokesperson says “all officers receive a yearly training course regarding the nuances of transit safety.”)

The panel also noted the “lack of investment by off-duty APD officers working for CapMetro to be proactive and able to conduct follow-up on CapMetro offenses,” specifically assaults on bus operators.

In August, a CapMetro bus operator was threatened with physical violence. On the video, officers who responded to her bus are overheard telling the operator she would need to go to community court herself to file charges.

Passenger yells at CapMetro bus operator (Courtesy CapMetro)

“You can press charges, but I can’t arrest him for a threat unless I hear the threat,” the officer is heard saying on surveillance video.

When the operator requested the video of the incident, she was suspended without pay because managers with MV Transportation, a third-party contractor for CapMetro, saw her use her cellphone to call 9-1-1 from the driver’s seat of the bus. A violation of company policy. She was later paid back-pay after going to the CapMetro board to explain the incident.

In a September interview with the president of the ATU Local 1091, a union representing CapMetro bus operators said a dedicated police agency is promising — but not a solution in the short term where operators are having to enforce the agency’s COVID-19 rules. CapMetro officials estimated during an August board meeting, the new police agency could take up to 18 months to become operational.

“Over the last year and a half, we have had a lot of problems with repeat offenders verbally assaulting the operators, some physical, yelling — just overall threatening behavior,” said ATU Local 1091 president Brent Payne.

CapMetro officials declined our repeated requests for an interview with the executive vice president and chief safety officer Gardner Tabon but did answer questions through email.

In a statement, the agency said, “one of the reasons CapMetro is broadening its public safety program is to allow for a group of professionals, such as ambassadors, intervention specialists and law enforcement officers to become familiar with routes, staff, and customers because they will interact with them on a daily basis.”

“When an incident occurs on our system, everything from the officer responding to the detective’s investigation to tracking through the system allows for a safer and more desirable environment for staff and customers.”

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