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Some MTA Drivers Get Physical

Attacks on riders not always punished

June 24, 1996

By CHIP JACOBS
Daily News Staff Writer

Bruised and bleeding from one ear, 79-year-old Louis Ross could only mutter “Why?” as the MTA bus he had just staggered off roared away.

The thrashing he took didn’t add up. Sure, the retired accountant had squabbled with the driver for taking so long to open the bus doors for him at a Rampart area stop, but Ross figured it was just words.

Then driver David Smith rose from behind the wheel, pushed the diminutive Ross into a handrail and roughed him up so badly he had to be helped off the coach and whisked to the emergency room.

A passenger who watched the Nov. 8 battering said she was so shocked by it she refuses to ride MTA buses anymore.

“I never thought a driver who is supposedly working for us would beat up an old man,” said witness Linda Streeter. “For (him) to become so violent all of a sudden, he must have had a problem.”

Smith, fired and now serving a six-month jail sentence for the crime that City Attorney James Hahn called “unconscionable,” refused comment.

Even so, he wasn’t the first driver to lash out against a passenger.

In the past five years, Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operators have been implicated in roughly 100 passenger beatings, assaults on motorists and other serious on-duty crimes, according to records obtained by the Daily News.

Disturbing on their own, the cases spotlight dual problems for America’s second-largest bus agency: its inability to shield drivers from the stress and violence spilling in through the bus doors and the fact that the violence has galvanized some bus operators to flout established rules and respond with hostile acts of their own.

“We’ve got some guys who aren’t the best people,” said Goldy Norton, spokesman for the union representing MTA drivers. “If they have a confrontation with passengers, they’re likely to lose (their tempers). It’s not an excuse, but unfortunately, these things happen.”

Those volatile operators, Norton and agency brass note, represent only a fraction of the 4,000 people at the wheel on MTA coaches. The numbers also pale in comparison to the times drivers were victimized by others while on duty.

As they sweated to keep their coaches on time and under control, the agency’s bus operators were targeted in nearly 2,000 assaults and other crimes between 1991 and 1995, the Daily News recently reported. Drivers have been stabbed and shot, whacked with metal pipes and bottles, sprayed with tear gas and urine, and sexually brutalized.

“When you play a violin too long, it breaks,” said MTA board Chairman Larry Zarian. “The public needs to understand the pressure the drivers face.”

But once they have been named suspects in on-duty clashes, drivers have received disparate treatment ranging from punitive to preferential, records and interviews show.

At least 18 operators have been fired and 14 suspended because of violent or sexual incidents since 1991 – proof, officials say, that their employees are held to tough standards.

Nearly 20 cases, however, remain unsolved or cannot be located because of MTA record-keeping lapses. Two operators quit before they could be disciplined, including a driver who police said sexually assaulted a female passenger with Down syndrome in the San Fernando Valley three years ago.

Others suspected of wrongdoing, meantime, were never thoroughly investigated or were given special treatment, according to a number of current and former Transit Police officers who said they were acting on orders from above.

“I (was) on cases where they thumped people and basically nothing happened,” said ex-MTA Transit Police Sgt. Scott Pawlicki. “It was like we were handcuffed.”

“Sometimes there is pressure by supervisors not to arrest drivers,” added Sgt. Mark Jennings. “It’s an unwritten thing.”

Contending that her department has a good track record of dealing with operators accused of brutality or other misdeeds, MTA Transit Police Chief Sharon Papa said her department typically handles cases fairly, like it would any other.

At the same time, she conceded, some of her sergeants have until recently given directives to officers not to haul drivers to jail.

“It’s the politics involving the unions and the fact bus operators are their co-workers,” Papa said. “Some still feel that way, but it’s not policy.”

In the Ross case, an officer was directed by a supervisor not to allow the old man to identify the driver. That, officials said, partly explained why the driver didn’t go to jail for more than four months after the attack.

Police supervisors today admit they should have made a “different call” but blame it on a sergeant no longer with the force.

Other incidents reviewed by the Daily News exhibited what even MTA cops say was bungled follow-up or poor judgment on their part.

Take the driver accused by a female rider of sexually soliciting her in July. He wasn’t formally questioned by Transit Police until he had committed a second, similar offense with an underage patron in October, records and interviews show.

The operator, Dwight Penkey, was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 18 months in jail for both crimes – but only after MTA detectives had lost a key file for a month and had difficulty tracking down the first victim.

Even when wires aren’t crossed, transit cops said, it’s difficult to locate hot-tempered operators because of the 1,800 MTA buses roaming the Southland every working day. Victims who can’t list badge numbers, give good physical descriptions or return their calls especially hamper things.

Police, for example, still can’t reach a man who claimed a driver kicked him in the chest so hard it sent him tumbling backward onto a Van Nuys sidewalk. The December incident remains unsolved.

In many of the fleshed-out cases, minor disputes were the catalyst.

One experienced driver had felony battery charges lodged against him by the District Attorney’s Office after a young house painter was battered near USC over mere pennies.

The passenger, Tello Sabador, came up 10 cents short of the $1.35 fare in December and asked if anyone could lend him a dime or break a $20 bill, according to records and eyewitness statements. Fuming over the request, driver Richard Barre handed Sabador a bus transfer, followed him off the bus, threw him to the ground and then hurtled him into a parking meter, according to prosecutors.

“He was trying to break me in two,” Sabador said in an interview.

Preparing for Friday’s scheduled start of the trial, Barre’s lawyer said his client acted only in self-defense and that Sabador had used racial slurs – a charge Sabador denied.

Still, Barre himself told police investigating the incident that a passenger struck him in the head six months ago and, as a result, he “may have lost it a little too much.”

Since his overall record is good, he is still driving today, MTA officials say.

Other drivers, meantime, have been sacked for shoving riders, groping female passengers, even threatening a gang member with a hatchet, personnel records indicate. Others have been suspended for less serious scrapes, including an operator who intentionally rammed the car of two undercover state agents because it was parked in a bus layover zone.

Transit Police Officer Carlos Diaz, an 11-year veteran, has a different story to tell.

Three years ago, he was summoned to a mid-city site where a Latino passenger had claimed an African-American driver slammed her into a concrete wall after the two exchanged racial barbs and bickered over the bus’ destination.

Under their union contract, MTA operators are never supposed to fight, particularly when it means getting off the bus.

Witnesses supported the account of the passenger, Glenda Jimenez, who had a swollen arm and other injuries. Diaz figured it was enough to jail the driver on battery charges, but a sergeant instructed him to just have the driver, Calvin Lawton Jr., agree to a court appearance.

“Lawton should have gone to jail. No one deserves to be beaten like a piece of meat,” said Diaz. “I was boiling inside. But drivers are treated differently.”

The sergeant was Jennings, who said he was acting on orders from Capt. Dennis Conte.

After reviewing the file, Conte said he made the right decision to expedite the case. He said he didn’t think it was as serious as Diaz indicated.

If anything, Conte noted, many drivers believe transit cops treat them heavy-handedly and expose them to danger by taking so long to reach crime scenes.

Because of that – and with half the MTA’s 372-officer force guarding a rail system that transported only 5 percent of mass transit users last year – some operators have concluded that the best defense is to go on the offensive.

“You have quite a few bus drivers that will take the situation into their own hands,” said operator Sidney Carr. “It’s not that they’re violent. It’s that many old-timers won’t put up with someone mouthing off. I try to ignore it.”

The City Attorney’s Office ultimately decided there wasn’t enough evidence to press criminal charges against Lawton. Jimenez has since filed a $25,000 civil lawsuit.

Lawton’s attorney, meanwhile, insisted his client never slammed Jimenez into the wall, only grabbing her arm when she tried to strike him.

While acknowledging that bus crime is a major concern, MTA Executive Director Joe Drew said he believes some riders have filed frivolous claims against drivers because of the agency’s deep pockets. For him, the way police handle the cases is more of an issue than operators with short fuses.

“I will be absolutely determined, if we are covering up misbehavior whether by the operators or police, to stop it,” Drew said.

In recent years, the agency has forked out $215,000 to settle claims from three unspecified cases involving operator brutality. It faces tens of thousands of dollars more in legal defense bills and upcoming lawsuits.

Driver Eddie Reece said he certainly didn’t get any break from the MTA after a supervisor discovered he had brought a loaded semiautomatic handgun and extra ammunition on board his bus last year. He said the weapon was there accidentally and, like others, hopes to reverse his termination through the agency appeals system.

“The same thing happened to someone else, and they gave him a 20-day suspension,” Reece said.

Roughly three years ago, the agency stopped giving prospective drivers psychological tests because testing wasn’t giving them insight into an applicant’s mental state, MTA officials say.

According to Sabador’s attorney, Phil Kaufman, the agency should be better at dealing with violent drivers and screening prospective ones.

“(Drivers) take a lot of guff, people hassle them and then they overreact,” Kaufman said. “It raises questions.”

Copyright Daily News of Los Angeles