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Spokane Transit bus drivers seek protection after recent assaults

STA buses display a thank you on their reader sign, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, after Proposition 1 was passed on Tueday evening. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
STA buses display a thank you on their reader sign, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, after Proposition 1 was passed on Tueday evening. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Assaults and threats against Spokane Transit Authority drivers appear to be on the rise, and that has drivers concerned, according to the leader of the union that represents many of the drivers.

“Just since December there’s been seven incidents,” said Thomas Leighty, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1015. “Our town is growing.”

Not all have been violence-related incidents, but drivers have reported multiple cases of verbal abuse, spitting and threats.

The most serious incident happened in early March, when a passenger punched STA driver Garry LaPlante, who was training a new hire, hard enough to knock him unconscious, according to an incident report.

LaPlante had been either standing or sitting behind the new driver as he drove, giving him tips. The bus approached a stop on Northwest Boulevard when a passenger got up to leave the bus. “I said something like ‘Have a nice day,’ because that’s what we do,” LaPlante wrote.

LaPlante said that’s the last thing he remembers, until he woke up on the floor of the bus. That was supposed to be LaPlante’s last day at work before retiring, but his fall exacerbated a previous injury, Leighty said.

The man who hit LaPlante, identified as Adam Fleury, was arrested and banned from all STA buses for a year. He is in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial.

Shortly after the incident, the STA started a review of all assaults over the past five years, said STA Director of Operations Steve Blaska. Since 2012, there have been five physical assaults and nine incidents of spitting, which is also considered assault. Arrests were made in eight of those cases.

Two physical assaults that were not charged were committed by the same developmentally disabled individual. In the second of the two, the man assaulted a passenger as well, hitting her on the side of the head.

“He just clocks her right upside the head,” Leighty said. “They didn’t press charges again. In this last one, I think they should have.”

Blaska said the man was banned from all STA buses for 60 days after the first incident and 90 days after the second. “We have to consider the individual and the actual assault,” he said. “The exclusion is a pretty serious consequence for him and his service provider.”

Each bus has eight video cameras that show interior and exterior views and also record audio. Drivers have overt and covert ways of notifying dispatch of an emergency and security officers ride buses randomly as a deterrent.

“Our security systems make it very likely that the offenders will be caught and prosecuted,” Blaska said. “It’s a serious crime and it should be a serious crime.”

In January, driver David Goodwin wrote an incident report in which he implored STA to take action. A regular rider couldn’t find his bus pass, and Goodwin allowed him to sit down and look for it while the bus continued, he wrote. A few minutes later, he asked the man if he had found his pass and the man approached him and said he hadn’t found it but that he had a gun. The man then got off the bus.

“I was threatened for no reason,” Goodwin wrote. “Houston, we have a problem. This is big. I expect management and our union and training department to answer to this.”

Goodwin later wrote a six-page letter to the union about the incident. He questioned why an STA security officer didn’t ride his bus for the rest of the night, though one did ride with him on that route the next time the man was expected on board. “I, and other operators, observe what appears to be a trend with STA management seeming to ‘brush or sweep’ events under the rug as what appears to be their standard operating procedure,” he wrote.

He wrote that he has been so worried about the man getting back on his bus that he is attending counseling.

“The counselor asked me if management asked if I was all right after my traumatic event,” he wrote. “I said I do not recall them asking that or showing any concern.”

Leighty said one of the main concerns of drivers is that STA never lets drivers involved in incidents know what the outcome of a complaint has been or what, if anything, has been done about it.

“It comes down to communication, some consistency,” he said.

Blaska said STA is examing ways to improve communication with drivers involved in incidents.

Other drivers have reported being asked to continue their route or drive back to the bus barn after an incident. In some of those cases, the drivers later said they were so upset by the incidents that they had no memory of making the drive, Leighty said. When something happens, another driver should be sent out to take over, he said.

Leighty said the union is requesting some buses be equipped with shields to protect drivers.

That option is being considered, Blaska said. “It’s certainly one of the things we’re going to consider,” he said. “It’s not a simple answer.”

“You don’t want to separate them from their ability to do their job and manage situations on the bus,” he said. “We want to be smart about what we adopt.”

Once the review of assault incidents is over, decisions will be made about what changes to make, Blaska said. A shield could be part of the solution, along with training in de-escalation and self-defense techniques for drivers.

“If you look at the way we’re addressing this now, I don’t think you could say we’re sweeping this under the rug,” he said.

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