City addresses unruly bus riders

Possible upgrades include ride-along security, on-board cameras

Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009

A sucker punch from an unruly passenger ended Deborah Munsell's job as a Capital Transit bus driver, a job she enjoyed for 7 ½ years.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"I liked my job as a Capital Transit driver. I learned, a lot of times the hard way, how to deal with people," she said. "I found the driving part was the easiest part."

It was just another day for Munsell on July 27, 2008, as she hurried to the bus after a restroom break. People began boarding at the corner stop at Main Street and Egan Drive, including a regular who was swearing and cursing. Munsell tried to defuse the situation and asked him to get off the bus and talk to her.

"He got off the bus, I got off the bus, and I said, 'What's going on?' He didn't respond, and he said, 'Well if you're not going to let me on the bus I'm going to call the cops.' In my mind I thought, 'Well that's all right.' ... The last thing I saw was him coming at me with a fist. I just wasn't expecting that."

The punch broke her nose and caused two fractures above her left eye.

Munsell's experience is an extreme example of the unruly behavior city bus drivers face in a system that provides roughly 1.25 million rides annually.

The idea of placing security personnel on city buses was brought up at a Juneau Assembly meeting earlier this month. Some have suggested installing on-board security cameras, like in some Lower 48 cities.

Most full-time bus drivers will probably have 300 to 500 separate interactions with the public on any given day, Capital Transit Superintendent John Kern said.

"We always have, I'm sorry to say, a group of individuals that we have to work with in order to keep their behavior in line and in order to keep their presentation, their cleanliness, in line," Kern said.

Every once and a while, a passenger's hygiene is so bad it upsets other riders.

The bus system put in place a code of conduct about six years ago to address behavioral problems on the city buses. The code calls for no swearing, eating, drinking, tobacco use and playing music loudly, and requires people to maintain an appropriate level of hygiene.

The code of conduct has helped, but there are still going to be incidents on the bus because of the high level of ridership, Kern said.

"I would say we get maybe three to five complaints from the public every week, but realize that's probably about 24,000 different public interactions," he said. "That's 24,000 different opportunities for something to go wrong. I would say the number of times that something actually goes wrong is very low."

The drivers also report any problems on incident reports that can help Capital Transit determine behavioral patterns with particular riders.

Kyle Greene, who rides the bus as much as possible to save money and reduce his carbon footprint, said he feels the Capital Transit system would get even more use if there weren't so many highly intoxicated people riding the bus every day.

"It's pretty disconcerting to see some of these people smashed out of their minds and it's not even 11 a.m. yet," he said. "I can see how some people would just not feel comfortable being around that."

Kern said it is better to have people using the bus instead of driving when intoxicated, but admits it can be a problem, too.

"We have a fairly significant group of people who go through their days fairly intoxicated," he said. "I would say it's a daily situation where we have persons that we will not allow on the bus because their behavior is just not acceptable."

Bus drivers will remove the riders that get too unruly and ban them for a month to a year or more, Kern said; earlier this month, the banned list had three people on it. Capital Transit works with the Juneau Police Department, which issues criminal trespassing citations to enforce the bans, he said.

Overcrowding is one of the main contributing factors to complaints about behavior on the bus.

"When you have a lot of people standing on the bus, people become less tolerant of the behavior," Kern said.

The Assembly this year approved extra funding for Capital Transit in order to address crowding. The Express Service will be doubled beginning Monday and will run between Auke Bay and downtown every half hour on weekdays instead of every hour.

Munsell, 51, is taking classes now at the University of Alaska Southeast with hopes of beginning a new career as a drafter.

She had returned to bus driving for one day after healing, but had difficulty focusing - she kept thinking about her attacker, even though she knew he had been arrested. She decided her career as a bus driver was over.

"I didn't think it would affect me like it did because driving a city bus is what I wanted to do," she said. "I never feared the people before."

Everybody should feel comfortable on the city buses, she said.

"To me, everyone should be able to ride the bus without being offended, without being afraid."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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