By Patrice Nkrumah
Despite millions that have been poured into upgrading security on CTA trains and buses in recent years with high-tech cameras, physical assaults on bus drivers and other workers are a problem, according to the union that represents CTA operators.
Earlier this week, over a dozen bus drivers attended a court hearing where two women who were charged with misdemeanors for attacking a female bus driver had their charges increased to felonies. Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 241 told reporters about 12 to 15 physical assaults happen to bus drivers every month in Chicago.
“This is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed,” said Keith Hill, president of the bus drivers union. “We are providing a vital service to the public. We don’t deserve to be verbally and physically assaulted by members of the public. We are going to continue to pressure prosecutors to charge people with felonies for these blatant physical attacks.”
The incident that spurred the latest stance by the union surrounds an alleged attack on July 29 by two women on bus driver Melissa Barker. Miraha Gibson, 20, and Jada Goodall, 18, are said to have attacked Barker with a bottle of tequila when she was driving her route along 69th and Halsted. Both made physical threats against Barker, according to the police report, before attacking her. They fled from the bus, but were apprehended a short time later by police. Originally charged with misdemeanor battery, both women had the charges upgraded by prosecutors earlier this week.
“Assaults against operators of CTA buses are very rare,” said CTA spokesperson Brian Steele. “We have hundreds of thousands of miles of trips each year, and the number of assaults is comparatively low. It’s really outrageous, though, that a small number of people think that it’s okay to act disrespectfully toward or assault our operators.”
The union, however, is pushing for more safety initiatives, including making sure each bus is equipped with a protective shield that separates the operators from the public. CTA buses are fitted with at least three different security cameras. The union says they are good, but things can still improve. Steele said the CTA will be rolling out some new security measures in the coming weeks on buses that will include a live-feed monitor that everyone on the bus can see what is being recorded.
“What we really need are more police in high-crime areas,” Hill said. “That is the biggest deterrent.”
Barker missed six weeks of work and is now on light duty as she recovers from the attack. She said she has two bulging discs in her neck, which is preventing her from driving a bus. She is optimistic to return soon to a job she said she loves.
“I miss the passengers, and I really miss the school children who ride every day,” Barker said.
Gibson and Goodall were believed to be intoxicated at the time of the attack on Barker. Drunk and unruly passengers are not uncommon on CTA buses, according to the union, CTA and regular passengers. Many times, the situation is de-escalated when the person is asked to leave the bus or police are called and take the person away, according to Steele.
Bridget Harris rides the CTA on a regular basis because she does not have a car. She said every day she mentally and physically prepares herself because she never knows what can happen when she is a passenger.
“It’s sad that you can’t feel safe on a public bus. From the foul language to people fighting on the bus, you never know when something serious will happen,” Harris said. “My biggest fear is there will be a shooting, like the one that killed that young man Blair Holt back in the day. But usually, it’s just drunk people or people who don’t want to pay the fare who cause all of the problems.”