Muni assaults increasing

After two Muni employees were assaulted in oneweek in April, some critics claim the attacks reported by the transit agency do not reflect the violence operators and station agents face on the job.

On April 16 and again on April 19, Muni personnel were assaulted by drunken passengers, both of whom allegedly punched and struggled with the employees — a bus driver and a station agent — before police broke up the scuffles.

On April 16, one man, whom San Francisco police Capt. John Ehrlich said was reported as drunk, began yelling at, then attacking a Castro station agent, who had to physically restrain him until police arrived.

Three days later, a bus driver at Fulton Street and Masonic Avenue tried to eject a passenger who was drunk and disruptive, Ehrlich said. The passenger became verbally abusive, Ehrlich said, and fought with the driver and police who responded to the scene.

On Thursday, Muni reported that its personnel experienced an average of 71.4 attacks per year for the previous five years. The highest number came in fiscal year 2002-03, when 84 assaults were recorded, and the lowest number occurred in fiscal year 2005-06, with 51. In fiscal year 2006-07, 73 assaults were reported.

Several drivers contacted by The Examiner claim the figures are underreported. One driver said that assaults in the form of spitting, slapping, aggressive language and throwing coins in the driver’s face happen daily.

“Most drivers have been browbeaten to accept it as an unfortunate fact of employment,” driver Charles White said. He said drivers often do not report attacks or confrontations, even though Muni guidelines require them to, because they do not feel supported by management and law enforcement.

Union leader Irwin Lum, president of Transport Workers of America Local 250, said Wednesday that not enough attacks on drivers are prosecuted as felonies. As long as the courts drop charges or treat it as a misdemeanor, the public will not understand how serious the offenses are, Lum said.

Assault on a transit worker is a felony in California, District Attorney Kamala Harris’ spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh said. “The district attorney takes every case of violence against a public employee very seriously,” she said. “We aggressively charge every case where the evidence bears out a crime.”

In addition to a perceived lack of prosecution, Lum also said that drivers who make workers’ compensation claims after an attack often have to wait 90 days without pay for an investigation to be completed before they can receive benefits.

“Through the Workers’ Compensation department, we have mounted a system-wide Anti-Assault campaign. We have placed stickers notifying the public that stiff penalties and incarceration will result if a person is convicted of assaulting a transit operator,” Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch wrote in an e-mail.

“The MTA (Municipal Transportation Agency) has also designed barriers on the transit vehicles to inhibit and prevent the public from physically reaching the transit operator. We also have cameras on the vehicles which assist us in identifying the attackers who commit these crimes,” Lynch wrote.

Bill to protect DPT officers advances

As Muni operators call for stiffer punishments for, and more protection from, attackers, similar measures for parking control officers are in the works following a surge in attacks last year.

After 28 parking control officers — those who issue parking tickets and do traffic control — were assaulted last year, up from 17 in 2005, District Attorney Kamala Harris began working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and state Rep. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, on legislation that would increase penalties for assaults on those officers.

On April 17, the same week in which two Muni employees were allegedly attackedby drunken passengers, Harris announced that the bill protecting parking control officers passed the state Assembly's Committee on Public Safety.

In addition to the Assembly bill, the MTA, which oversees the Department of Parking and Traffic, this week debuted an experimental 360-degree camera that sits atop a parking control officer's cart. The camera is designed to capture the image of an assaulter to be used as evidence in prosecution.

The cameras cost $5,300 each, according to MTA spokeswoman Maggie Lynch. The first one will serve for a 30-day trial period before more carts are outfitted with the technology.

So far this year, three assaults and three threats have been recorded against DPT personnel, the agency reported. At the same time last year, seven attacks had been recorded.

amartin@examiner.com

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