ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – City of Albuquerque bus drivers have to deal with all kinds of trouble. Lately, they’re finding themselves under attack from unruly passengers more often.
KRQE Investigates obtained the numbers and the disturbing video to show people what’s happening on City of Albuquerque buses. Bus drivers are also speaking out, worried for their safety and the safety of other passengers.
Surveillance video from inside a city bus earlier this year shows a City of Albuquerque bus driver sucker-punched, unprovoked. The man reaches around a plexiglass shield to punch the driver before running away. “Dammit! What the f***?” The driver is heard saying, bleeding from a broken nose.
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In another case, another bus driver is slapped by a passenger, also seemingly unprovoked. The driver appears stunned, and the person runs away.
City bus footage obtained by KRQE shows violent encounters between passengers and bus drivers just this year. In one case, a man who missed the bus along Central Avenue showed his displeasure by firing six shots at the bus as it drove away.
“This mother f****** is shooting at the bus!” The driver exclaims. No one was hurt. “Wow! that guy just shot at the bus,” the driver repeats, stunned.
However, at least one case from February is a different story. “F*** you!” An apparent teenager tells a bus driver. “Oh dude, I will knock you out,” the driver responds. “Do it!” The teen replies.
Video shows what appears to be a teenager lashing out at a bus driver who’d just said ‘No mask, no ride,’ back when masks were still mandatory on public transportation. The teen, who’s holding a bouquet of flowers, gets angry at the driver.
When the bus driver tells him, “You better get out of here,” surveillance shows the teen headbutt the driver. Then a scuffle breaks out. As the driver tries to push the kid away, his friends jump in, repeatedly punching the bus driver in the head and knocking him to the ground.
It doesn’t stop there. One of the teenagers returns to stomp on and kick the bus driver while he’s down. Another person steals the bus driver’s backpack before running off.
“Did you see what happened to my glasses?” The bus driver is left disoriented and bloodied. He struggles to get up, asks another passenger for help, then calls for security.
“I just got jumped by a couple of punks,” the driver tells dispatch over the radio.
Bus drivers speak out
“I’m gonna be 66 in August,” said Ricardo Gonzales. He is the driver in that video, who was attacked by the teens.
Gonzales has been a city bus driver in Albuquerque for nearly 23 years. “It’s horrible,” he said.” I don’t wish that upon anybody,” he added, recalling the day he was attacked.
He and other long-time bus drivers claim their role has changed over the years. Particularly this year, drivers said things changed when the city made bus rides free and gas prices hit an all-time high.
“Oh, it has changed drastically,” said Gonzales. When asked if he feels like his job has become more dangerous, he replied, “In some aspects, yes.”
Drivers said the problem is worse along certain routes. Central and San Mateo is a place where drivers encounter frequent issues. “Some of these people are out there and you can see it in their faces that they’re not all there,” said Gonzales.
Bus drivers dubbed one attacker, the “sucker-punch bandit,” saying he’s sucker-punched more than one driver. He usually runs off before anyone can catch him.
“People are, I think all across the city, people are getting – worse,” said Lois Painter. “I mean, I don’t know what else to say. It’s bad.”
Painter has been driving city buses for a decade. She hasn’t been assaulted, but she told KRQE News 13 that she’s often on edge. “Another driver got punched on Central,” Painter recalled. “And they watched this individual get on my bus they let him continue to sit on my bus until APD came which was, you know, APD has response times.”
When something does happen, Painter and Gonzales, claim security and police response times aren’t fast enough. “Holy moly, by that time, this whole thing could have escalated,” said Gonzales. “This could really escalate bad. It could get out of hand.”
Painter and Gonzales were both nervous to speak publicly, but said these issues need to be addressed.
Battery reports against drivers way up
KRQE Investigates looked into whether the city’s data shows an increase in violence against bus drivers in Albuquerque. Through a public records request, KRQE News 13 found out reports of battery against drivers are way up, with 29 cases reported last year. That’s up more than 70% over the two previous years.
“When you see those things or hear that that’s happening, what’s your reaction?” Investigative Reporter Gabrielle Burkhart asked Bobby Sisneros, the Interim Transit Director for the City of Albuquerque.
“My first reaction is what’s wrong with people?” Sisneros said. “My second reaction is, how can we stop this from happening again? I want to make sure my drivers are safe. I want to make sure that anybody that steps foot on a bus is safe.”
Sisneros explained ridership has also increased, as life is returning to its pre-pandemic ways. So what’s being done to make things safer?
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Sisneros says they’re working to equip all city buses with better driver shields, essentially thick plexiglass to enclose the driver. “We installed a plexiglass version, but that was designed more for the pandemic,” said Sisneros. “They’re flimsier, they’re not as sturdy.”
Painter and Gonzales said many of the current plexiglass shields easily break, or swing back and forth while the bus is in motion. Video shows the “sucker-punch bandit” reaching past that same enclosure to punch a driver in the face, breaking his nose.
“Did he hit you?” A passenger asked the driver. “Yeah, he hit me!” The bus driver responds. “Why?” The passenger asked, confused. “I don’t know why he hit me!” The driver said.
Better, more secure enclosures are coming, Sisneros says. “It’s a supply chain issue, just like everything else going on right now,” he said. “So we’ve made the orders. We’re just waiting for them to come in.”
“I signed on to drive a bus,” said Painter. “I didn’t sign on to be a police officer, or security personnel or, you know, to put my life in jeopardy,” she added.
Painter argues driver shields aren’t enough. “We’re dealing with mental illness. We’re dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness – on every route, every day,” she said.
Some routes are worse than others. City data shows Route 66 along Central from the West side to Uptown has the most reports of attacks on drivers, dating back to 2019.
KRQE News 13 asked the bus drivers what they think needs to be done to protect drivers. “I feel like we need security on each and every bus,” said Painter.
“I hear them,” said Sisneros. “I hear their complaints. I hear their concerns,” he added.
More security guards?
When asked if it’s feasible to staff every bus with a security guard, Sisneros replied, “Unfortunately, that’s just – the cost would be astronomical.” The city’s struggling to staff security positions and bus drivers as it is, he said.
Sisneros said transit security guards do ride along on buses, and change up which routes they tag along for. He said they do try and place staff in parts of the city with higher rates of battery reports.
City data shows some bus routes become inoperable, due to staffing issues. In other cases, a bus stops service due to violent encounters.
“Bus is down, guys. Sorry,” a driver is heard on surveillance video telling his passengers he can no longer operate the bus after being attacked. He has to file an incident report and wait on transit security and police to arrive.
Gonzales says his attackers still haven’t been caught. While passengers will occasionally see a security guard on a bus, drivers know it’s not enough of a deterrent.
“I’ve just been assaulted, I’m bleeding through my nose,” a driver tells dispatch. “No, he took off. I don’t even know who it was.”
The City of Albuquerque’s free bus fare program lasts until next June at least. After that, the city council will need to decide whether to discontinue the free fare program.
The City of Albuquerque transferred $1.5 million from the general fund into the Transit fund for the Zero Fares Program to run through the fiscal year. After June of 2023, city councilors will need to decide whether or not to continue the Zero Fares Program.
Sisneros said the enclosures have worked to cut down on violence against bus drivers in Kansas City, and he hopes they’ll do the same in Albuquerque. There is no specific timeline for when all of Albuquerque’s city buses could get those new enclosures installed.