AFSCME Council 18

ABQ Transit Drivers Escalate Calls for Safety with Sunday 10/6 PICKET

 As Citizens Speak Out with ‘Claims of Safety’ Berry Administration ?Shows Little Sign They’re Taking Driver Grievances Seriously


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October 1 saw yet another incident involving an inebriated and aggressive passenger aboard an ABQ Ride bus. This time, passengers and the driver were fortunate that ABQ Ride Transit Security Officers were close by and able to intervene.

With transit security officers cut by 50% in recent years and the Albuquerque Police Department also dangerously understaffed, drivers report response times during an emergency can take 20 minutes or more.

“Confrontations involving passengers can escalate to violence in a matter of minutes.” Said Phillip Torres, AFSCME Local 624 transit safety committee (ATSC) member.

A policy preventing drivers from leaving their seat to confront violent passengers has left many of them in a pickle. Drivers are supposed to be primarily concerned with the dangers outside the bus (traffic and distracted drivers) however, they take the safety of their passengers seriously. When an aggressive person boards a bus and accosts passengers, drivers are forced to choose between following policy or protecting a passenger.

“I’ve witnessed a driver who left her seat to get a belligerent drunk passenger off the bus,” said Janice Morgan, a daily ABQ Ride passenger. “The driver ended up being disciplined themselves.”

Drivers have criticized the administration for failing to respond to a May 2013 report prepared by drivers and presented to the administration and city council. This report identified trouble spots and offered solutions to the problems drivers were dealing with.

Since the report was first released, a rash of assaults on both passengers and drivers have escalated the situation. ABQ Ride drivers and their families are now regularly holding informational pickets at transit centers. Another larger public action is planned for this Sunday from 1-2 pm at the corner of San Mateo and Central Ave.

Last Friday, September 27, ATSC members met with Albuquerque’s Transit Director Bruce Rizzieri, to discuss current safety issues and troubleshoot solutions

Dangerously low staffing levels at ABQ Transit Security and APD aren’t the only problems identified. Supervisor and assistant director positions are down by approximately a dozen. This, according to Rizzieri, makes it difficult to carry out trainings for drivers. Rizzieri also expressed concern that the city may have to pay drivers overtime to attend trainings.

“We’re demanding increased security on buses and training for drivers on how to de-escalate violent encounters,” said ATSC Chair Elizabeth Maestes. “We need thorough and updated standard operating procedures [SOP] to help guide drivers in dealing with violent or other hazardous incidents on our buses.”

“I received a copy of the standard operating procedures over 10 years ago. To my knowledge, they haven’t been updated or redistributed since that time,” said Kim Ritchey, ATSC member. “Times have changed and things are more dangerous, our policies should reflect that.”

Ritchey’s claim is backed up by lifelong ABQ Ride passenger, James Graham. “I ride the bus 500 times a year. I never feel safe coming down Central or San Mateo in the afternoon. The stuff drivers have to deal with is outrageous, especially the women drivers. [Aggressive] passengers are much more dangerous than they used to be, quick to anger, quick to agitate.”

AFSCME’s transit safety committee also plans to spearhead an effort at the state level to increase penalties for people who assault transit operators. New Mexico law currently provides stiffer penalties only for perpetrators who injure drivers while attempting to hijack a bus.

“At the end of the day, bus drivers can’t change the social, economic, or mental well-being of our fellow citizens. What we can do is tell our bosses what makes a public transit system work. We can demand that the Berry Administration deal with reality and invest public resources quickly, now, to save our city’s transit system,” concludes Maestes.

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