Norfolk, Va. - Several Hampton Roads Transit operators contacted NewsChannel 3’s Barbara Ciara to say a video showing an attack on an HRT worker reflects the new normal for drivers these days.
They are assaulted physically or verbally almost daily.
Other drivers contacted NewsChannel 3 to share their stories. They say it depends on the route; some are trouble free, some are normal and others are nightmares.
“Drug deals, robbery, sex, homeless sleeping all day, it's ridiculous,” says Kathy Brown, an HRT driver who was fired.
Kathy was an operator for 10 years for HRT and says she reached her limit when a woman, Simyua Askew, spit on her during her shift. She obtained a protective order against Askew, but a few days later, Askew and her friend Latoya Sharpe returned. Kathy says the bus audio did not pick up on the threat.
She says the woman threatened to punch her in the face.
So Kathy reached out and smacked one of them, but it was Latoya Sharpe who was found guilty of assault and battery and spent five days in Norfolk City Jail, but HRT found that Kathy was the aggressor by making the first contact after she says she was threatened.
She was then terminated.
“I was supposed to sit there and allow her to do it again. No, no, no. At some point and time, I have to defend me,” says Kathy.
While Amanda Malone of Amalgamated Transit Union Local declined comment on Kathy's case, she says operators are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to defending themselves against unruly passengers.
“If you retaliate, you know, not thinking, and you get up out of that seat and off the bus, you are going to be terminated,” says Amanda Malone.
HRT’s director of transportation Benjamin Simms disagrees.
“That's absolutely not true, they have the right to defend themselves period,” says Simms.
They do agree that nationwide aggression against operators is a growing problem.
We asked the union representative if she had to grade it on a scale of one to ten what the number would be, and her answer wasn't pretty.
“This is a ten. A ten assault on an operator is a serious problem at Hampton Roads Transit,” says Malone.
The light rail operators have a barrier between passengers and drivers. The union says they have been asking for that protection on city buses.
“The partitions are needed ASAP and the monitors are, too. I mean, we have so many trouble routes,” says Malone.
“The first installation of those buses are due to arrive I think early to mid-December,” says Simms.
That timetable can't come soon enough for people like Kathy who have come face to face with hostile passengers.
“The thought of losing a job didn't cross my mind, it was losing my life,” says Kathy.
Malone was annoyed by HRT remarks in our first report that stated drivers were trained on how to deal with attacks.
“So after I heard this story air, I went and asked several operators and no one even knew or even heard about deescalating training,” says Malone.
Simms says HRT has just recently added the role-playing aspect to their ongoing operator training.
“We are exploring options of getting additional information and role playing exercises in that refresher that we are conducting now,” says Simms.
It’s a refresher course that comes too late for the ten-year career of Kathy Brown.
“Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking after driving ten years doing what I thought was the right thing for the company. Whatever they asked of me, I did and that is the pay I got?” asked Kathy.