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Safety shields going in fast after second bus driver attacked in Tampa

About 75 buses still need the clear, plastic doors. The transit authority plans to install eight a day.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus driver Rekira Owens is seen at the wheel behind a newly installed shield as they board the bus on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Tampa.  The clear divider is meant to protect drivers from physical assaults after a driver was killed earlier this year. A bus driver on Tuesday was operating a vehicle without a shield when he was attacked by a rider. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus driver Rekira Owens is seen at the wheel behind a newly installed shield as they board the bus on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Tampa. The clear divider is meant to protect drivers from physical assaults after a driver was killed earlier this year. A bus driver on Tuesday was operating a vehicle without a shield when he was attacked by a rider. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
Published Nov. 20
Updated Nov. 20

TAMPA — Hillsborough’s transit agency is speeding up the installation of clear, plastic safety shields on all its buses after the second assault on a bus operator this year.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is bringing in two additional contractors to help attach the shields, swing-away doors attached to the right of the drivers and designed to protect them from attacks.

The urgency comes after a bus driver was attacked Tuesday by a rider packing mace and a box cutter. The driver’s leg was severely wounded, requiring emergency surgery to save his life, Tampa police said.

“Our Operator came to work yesterday as a public servant doing his professional best to bring our seniors to doctor’s appointments, to take our neighbors to work and to serve Hillsborough County,” a release from the agency said. “HART is calling for the community’s support as we stand alongside our Operators and their families.“

Bus operator Thomas Dunn was killed in May when a rider slit his throat, prompting the transit agency to spend $1 million to install shields to the right of the driver’s seat on its 180 buses.

RELATED STORY: Hillsborough, Pinellas install safety shields to protect bus drivers

The first shield was installed in early October. Two workers have averaged a total of four installations a day, and 104 buses had been upgraded as of Tuesday, agency spokeswoman Carson Chambers said. The goal was to outfit the entire fleet by January.

But an operator driving one of the 76 other buses Tuesday was slashed several times across the leg and sprayed with mace, according to Tampa police.

RELATED STORY: Another bus driver attacked in Tampa, police say

Police arrested James Lee Ambrose, 65, and charged him with aggravated battery with great bodily harm and a deadly weapon.

Now, the transit authority will bring in two more workers to expedite the installation, boosting the average to eight shields a day, Chambers said. The agency is awaiting the arrival of the last shipment of shields from the manufacturer.

“They’ve been doing rolling installations" as shields arrive, Chambers said. “It wasn’t necessarily a manpower issue, it was production.”

As many as 136 buses are sent out on routes each morning, Chambers said. The agency hopes to have enough shields installed soon to cover the daily deployment.

Tuesday’s attack, like many assaults of drivers across the country, started with a fare dispute. Ambrose boarded the bus at around 2:30 p.m. at E Waters Avenue and N Ninth Street and tried to pay with cash when a malfunction occurred with the payment machine, police said.

Ambrose became enraged and attacked the driver. He was identified as Schnaider Prophete by Michael Burnett, a fellow driver and former president of Tampa’s Amalgamated Transit Union. Neither the transit agency nor Tampa police would confirm the driver’s name.

Bus rider John Phelps witnessed the attack and came to the driver’s rescue, police said. Making his way forward from the back of the bus, Phelps used a foldable shopping cart to create a barrier and push Ambrose back, then stayed between Ambrose and the driver and waved off other bus riders, police said.

Ambrose lunged at Phelps with the box cutter before running off the bus, police said. Officers apprehended him at E Juneau and N Alaska streets.

Ambrose told police, “I’m going to prison for 15 years for this."

The transit agency said the driver is a “seasoned operator” who has been with the agency for about 15 years. Burnett said he has known Prophete for 14 years and spoke with him after the attack.

“He’s in good spirits,” Burnett said. “He’s a professional operator and a great person. This was a senseless, unprovoked act.”

Burnett said whether an operator gets a bus with a shield is a random assignment.

“We have a set route and if your bus doesn’t have (a shield), then you’re the unlucky one that day,” Burnett said. “Too bad for him that his didn’t have one, because it probably would’ve prevented this.”

Burnett thanked both the Hillsborough and Pinellas bus authorities for ordering the safety shields and working to protect drivers. Pinellas will start installation on its shields next month.

RELATED STORY: Death or injury are rare among bus drivers, but they’re used to being spit on, harassed and pushed.

“Ninety percent of the patrons we deal with are very respectful, and they want to pay their fare,” Burnett said. “But there’s 10 percent that just don’t care. ... I just want to urge all the operators to let these people ride. Don’t even argue with them.”

Since 2008, nearly 2,000 bus drivers nationwide have been transported to a hospital with injuries from an assault, according to the National Transit Database.

An attack that results in death or serious injury is rare, but drivers in Hillsborough know what it’s like to be spit on, harassed and pushed, said Colin Mulloy, safety director with the Hillsbrough authority. A majority of confrontations nationwide start over fare disputes.

“We don’t want $1.25 fare turning into a situation that people are either verbally assaulted or there’s physical contact that occurs,” Mulloy said in an interview earlier this year. “We really put a lot of emphasis on deescalation training so that something as basic as a fare dispute doesn’t turn into something larger.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst

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