- Are these buses safe? (Photo: flickr/styro)
Metro sees the question of transit security as a priority, the organization's chief spokesperson tells me. Yeah?
"We don't want to see any of our employees hurt while trying to do their jobs," says Dan Stessel, the calm voice of Metro in the last month. He evenly describes the three recent attacks on bus drivers. He calls the attacks "brutal." One driver was punched in the face because he asked for the appropriate bus fare. A female driver was punched after asking a customer to move a stroller. Juveniles beat another. "All of this is unacceptable," Stessel says. "We are taking steps to protect our bus operators."
Stessel is reacting to the recent intense buzz regarding Metro security, particularly on bus drivers. Specifically, he wants to provide a calm institutional response to Amalgamated Local 689's "Operation: Safety First," set to launch tomorrow. Earlier today, I spoke with the union's recording secretary Anthony Garland and learned the details of their efforts, such as meetings over the bus's surveillance equipment as well as later this week with Metro Transit Police. Most significantly, the union plans to distribute upwards of 5,000 cards and a survey about Metro security to bus passengers tomorrow. See images of the cards here.
But Metro, Stessel stresses, is aware of the situation and acting accordingly. Much of what he said was wise, on point, and what one would hope a Metro spokesperson would say, from sharing the union's concerns to explaining how the institution is trying to address these different concerns. He also takes issue with some of the statistics the union is using and emphasizes the need for greater context surrounding them--such as the number of police that Metro assigns to protect bus drivers.
The union has observed, Stessel said, that Metro assigns nine officers to protect Washington D.C.'s buses, but that "number is low for any day." The number of officers varies from day to day, Stessel explained, but higher than that. "It's never fewer than 12 to 20 on a given day," he said, and added that sometimes Metro conducts bigger operations, such as the blitz from earlier this week that combined unformed and plain-clothes officers to investigate bus security. He wants people to realize that police "can take special actions to address trends."
The recent debacle over security is, I'd say, one such nasty trend that calls for a response. Stessel acknowledged as much and said that Metro will be redeploying officers for the summer to provide additional coverage.
The union and Metro do have their differences, of course. Amalgamated Local 689 prefers to see transit officers in uniform rather than undercover. As ATU president Jackie Jeter observed at the town hall meeting last week, she feels better when there's a "[police] presence" on board transit vehicles and believes people behave better. Stessel says Metro supports a different tactic but their mutual goal of safety is the same. "Not everything is an us versus them proposition," he said.
Stessel also added context regarding the bus's surveillance cameras. In my earlier piece, Garland observed that one-third of bus cameras are "inoperable," but Stessel says that these cameras are not necessarily broken. They may just never have been equipped with the DVR cameras. There are two types of surveillance cameras, Stessel explained: the DVR cameras that would record multiple parts of the bus at all times, which yes, he acknowledged, are not found or not working in about a third of the buses; and second, DriveCam equipment, which films on a loop but only retains the recording when the driver triggers it. That second type of camera can be found across just about all of Metro's buses, "at or close to 100% operable." Those cameras only can capture the front of the bus's interior and are designed more to monitor potential accidents, such as when a driver applies the brakes suddenly.
Are these answers sufficient? Stessel, again, seems to be doing his best and was more than willing to discuss any concerns I had. When I asked him about other bus driver concerns that have recently arose, such as a lack of bathroom breaks, he emphasized that bus drivers can call central control and that bus drivers can arrange for a bathroom break--great in theory. How easy is that in practice though? That, like so many elements of Metro security, is hard to say, given so much of the problem goes back to what seems to be a large gap in communication between the institution and the employee, based on the frustrations voiced at last week's union meeting.
For his part, Stessel's open to further discussion as these issues and meetings unfold. One great point, which speaks to an emotional union concern, is Metro's hope to create a process for drivers to give feedback on where police are needed. A bus operator would be able to say on what route and on what time they tend to encounter greater risk, such as during after-school hours when the number of juveniles riding escalates. He mentioned other meetings this week to explore the possibility of installing plexiglass shields on certain buses and whether they might be necessary to protect drivers.
It's all still a work in progress, of course, and whether Metro is or is not successfully crafting solutions to the security concerns, I suspect the institution may well end up deluged with hundreds of security-awareness cards that Metro employees are passing out tomorrow. For the sake of the bus drivers and riders, let's hope the message takes effect.