Attacks against MARTA drivers increase

ATLANTA (AP) — Metro Atlanta's public transit system is looking into new security measures as attacks against drivers increase.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, plans to install security cameras in buses and trains and is looking at shields to protect bus drivers. The security cameras will cost roughly $17 million. Shields on MARTA's 531 buses would cost another $1.3 million.

"We are not only concerned about the perception of crime, which, of course, is important," said Jim Durrett, chairman of the MARTA board. "Our board is committed to ensuring our customers and our employees are as safe as possible whenever they ride MARTA."

At least 15 drivers have been physically attacked since July 1. Seven others have been robbed and at least 49 more have faced verbal abuse or been spat on. MARTA says there have been 64 verbal confrontations and physical assaults on buses this year, 25 percent above the quarterly average for the years 2009-2011.

Rodney Blackmon, president of Local 732 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said drivers are fed up and want a safer workplace. Cameras would discourage criminals from targeting buses and shields would give both drivers and passengers a sense of security, he said.

"I would say from the spring there has been an increase in physical assaults on drivers," said Blackmon, whose union represents 1,225 drivers, 36 percent of whom are women. "We had one lady bus driver who got stabbed several times."

The driver, Janet Royston, 52, survived the September attack in DeKalb County.

Not everyone is a fan of the security proposals.

Terence Courtney, who heads the Atlanta Transit Riders Union, a grass-roots group composed of drivers and supporters, said cameras and shields send the wrong message. Shields also create an additional barrier between the driver and passengers, he said.

"That Plexiglas is a real divide and that is not literally or symbolically the kind of relationship we want to have," Courtney said. "The statistics will show you that most routes happen day after day without violence."

Drivers and riders have forged mutually protective relationship on some buses, he said, and shields prevent them from developing.

Atlanta isn't the only city with a rise in attacks on transit drivers, said Greg Hull, a security expert with the America Public Transportation Association.

A Philadelphia bus driver was shot in September. Local officials there said that was the 46th driver-related assault this year, more than double last year's number. In New York City, 69 assaults on transit drivers have been reported in 2011 through September, up 20 percent from last year.

In Atlanta, drivers are not the only ones who've faced attacks. In April, a group of youths boarded a Marta Red Line train bound for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and viciously attacked some passengers. Two Delta Air Lines workers suffered cuts to their faces in the late-night attack. Authorities later arrested two men and four juveniles in connection with the attack.

Transit police have increased patrols — with plain-clothes and uniform officers — on the buses. Seven officers now ride at an annual cost of $500,000, MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris said.