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Tampa Bay bus agencies struggle to keep track in wake of driver attacks

Elected officials see data as key to dealing with the problem, but systems for analyzing it are falling short.
Brandi Dobbins, 28, talks with bus operator Paul Robinson while boarding the PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, January 23, 2020.  [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
Brandi Dobbins, 28, talks with bus operator Paul Robinson while boarding the PSTA bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, January 23, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jan. 27
Updated Jan. 27

TAMPA — The outrage came swiftly after a passenger slit the throat of a Hillsborough bus driver in May.

Transit board members on both sides of the bay called for heightened security. Bus agencies spent millions of dollars to install plastic barriers meant to protect drivers. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority hosted a statewide safety summit and tested the panic buttons on its fleet of 180 buses.

“Safety and security is a core item,” the agency’s safety and security director Colin Mulloy told the board after driver Thomas Dunn’s death. “It’s paramount to everything that we do.”

And then it happened again: In November, another Hillsborough driver was stabbed by a passenger and hospitalized. Hillsborough and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority stepped up their efforts to put driver shields on all buses and repeated the mantra that safety is the top priority.

But eight months after Dunn’s death, Tampa Bay’s two largest transit agencies still haven’t reported to their board members how many driver attacks occur and how serious they are — data that could be vital to helping leaders understand the problems their drivers face and how to fix them.

Bus driver Eddie Torain waits for passengers at the Marion Transit Center in downtown Tampa. The Hillsborough transit agency said it will do a better job tracking driver attacks to help develop strategies for dealing with them. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Each agency struggles with the answers for different reasons.

Hillsborough relies on a paper record system where driver assault documents are stored in a filing cabinet, mixed with missing-items reports and crash data. The Tampa Bay Times was told it would cost almost $800 to pull the records. The agency later dropped the charge.

Related: Tampa bus driver killed in stabbing had complained about safety issues

Pinellas transit officials use a digital system to store, code and track their incident reports. But the agency does not separate and track driver-related assaults.

Neither agency summarizes or shares this data on a regular basis with its board, executive director or drivers.

The Times analyzed spreadsheets from each agency, reviewed 860 cases and read more than 640 hand-written reports to understand the number and severity of assaults drivers face in Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough’s transit authority, which provides 13 million passenger trips a year, logged 235 incident reports involving bus drivers last year. Sixteen of those were physical attacks.

These included Dunn’s death and the November stabbing. Other assaults included a passenger throwing a cup of soda at an operator and another punching a driver in the face. At least three drivers were spit on.

“That is very shocking,” board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said. “It is not a figure I would have expected to hear.”

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

In Pinellas, the numbers are difficult to come by. Because the safety and security team does not separate driver data from attacks on passengers, the staff could not tell the Times or the agency’s executive director how many operator assaults were recorded in 2019.

“We do know we have never had anything on the level of what (Hillsborough) saw last year,” safety director Theo Bakomihalis said.

But the agency could not provide proof of that. Bakomihalis could only estimate that 40 to 45 percent of its incidents are driver related.

Union representative and former driver April Murphy said she believes the number is much higher and insists the transit authority should do more to track, analyze and act on the data.

“It’s important information that I imagine (Pinellas) would want to know and should know,” Murphy said. “It’s something they could do, it just takes a little more time.”

Murphy also expressed frustration over how the security team processes and responds to incident reports. She said drivers have asked for security staff members to spend more time in the field witnessing conditions.

Passengers board the Pinellas Route 9 bus at Grand Central Station in St. Petersburg. The county transit agency said it will do a better job tracking driver attacks to help develop strategies for dealing with them. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Agency records show at least 625 verbal and physical incidents occurred in 2019, involving both drivers and passengers. Bus drivers provided more than 12 million passenger trips during the year.

But even these overall numbers are questionable. The first two sets presented to the Times omitted certain types of confrontations. So did subsequent numbers that were provided after a reporter noted the discrepancies. The result is an incomplete picture of the challenges facing drivers at Pinellas’ bus agency.

Bakomihalis said the agency mixed up public records requests in responding to the Times.

“It was an honest human error,” Bakomihalis said.

St. Petersburg City Council member and transit board member Gina Driscoll said she wants to see greater accuracy and efficiency in the agency’s data management.

“We need to have a clear picture of what’s happening out there so we know what issues to address,” Driscoll said. “We want to make sure we’re taking the right action at the right level. If one type of incident is off the charts as far as frequency, we need to focus on that more.”

Pinellas County commissioner and former board chair Janet Long said she is less concerned about knowing the number of attacks on drivers than she is about swift action to keep them safe.

Asked how the agency can choose a course of action without knowing what to address, Long paused and then replied, “That’s a good question.”

Still, she said, "My question is going to be what do we do with the information and how do we make things better.”

In response to inquiries from the Times, agency officials said they will start separating driver-related events for 2020, back to Jan. 1. Executive director Brad Miller said they will also begin sharing the number of incidents, types and trends with the transit board.

***

The safety of transit operators is reviewed nationwide by the Federal Transit Administration, but only in cases of death or injury requiring immediate hospitalization. Verbal threats and physical altercations are not tracked in the National Transit Database so record-keeping for each varies from agency to agency.

“If you don’t look at their record in totality ... if you don’t really get into the nuts and bolts of the root causes of these types of events, then you can end up missing something and someone can really get hurt,” said Ted Harris, chief customer experience officer for Hillsborough’s transit agency.

“We need to do a better job of defining and finding out what’s going on in that dataset down there.”

Hillsborough’s safety and security team uses a spreadsheet to log and summarize driver-related incidents and puts them in two tabs. The assault category includes a belligerent passenger cursing at a driver and a rider pulling out a knife. The battery category covers any physical acts such as spitting, punching or more violent confrontations.

The spreadsheet lives on a shared drive available to employees in the safety, risk and operators departments. But when the Times first requested the document, the staff told a reporter it did not exist. And reviewing reports logged on the spreadsheet requires a trip to a satellite building where the mixed paper files are kept.

Kemp, a board member, said she was shocked to learn this.

“If it’s on paper, it’s much harder to track and follow-up on and get results on,” Kemp said. “We should at least be scanning them in.”

Harris said the transit authority is working toward instituting an electronic system. The process has been slowed by an investigation into its chief executive officer that has stretched three months and by a legal challenge of the transportation sales tax that voters approved in 2018.

Meantime, officials put their focus on installing safety barriers, providing additional training to drivers, launching a “Ride with Respect" campaign and lobbying for new state legislation on operator assaults.

Other changes promised in the wake of Dunn’s death have been slow to come.

Two board members — Kemp and state appointee John Melendez — asked agency staff in June to aggregate and share driver assault data with the board on a monthly basis. Neither recalls ever receiving this information.

“I don’t feel very informed about what drivers are experiencing,” Kemp said. “I thought we should have a regular system tracking these assaults and making board members aware of it. ... I’d still like to see that.”

At the same June meeting, board chair Les Miller appointed five board members to a safety committee with a pledge to add transit union members and hold monthly meetings. The committee has met three times in eight months with a fourth meeting scheduled today. And now Miller says union members cannot join because of ongoing contract negotiations.

Mulloy and Miller said a presentation is planned for Monday to brief the committee on driver safety, including numbers and types of reports.

“There was a lack of someone taking responsibility for getting the information and getting it to us," Miller said. “I can’t justify why it didn’t happen in the eight months before, but the committee is meeting, the numbers are coming forward and we’re getting it done.”

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