Assaults on TTC drivers down, but still a problem, union chief says

355 assaults in 2009, down to 160 last year

It has been years since Bob Kinnear received the anonymous telephone call, but he says the memory still “brings a tear” to his eye.

Five years ago, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113, received a call from a 12-year-old girl. It turned out to be a daughter of one of the 10,000 Toronto Transit Commission employees that Kinnear represents. After ensuring confidentiality from him, she told Kinnear that her mother was assaulted on the job, and begged him to protect her.

“She was afraid to tell me her name; she didn’t want her mother to know that she is scared when her mother went to work,” Kinnear recalled. “I don’t think a lot of people realize the impact [of assaulting an operator], not only on the individual, but even on the family.”

According to the TTC, there were 355 incidents of assaults on their employees in 2009. As of late last year, the number of recorded incidents in 2014 was 160. Kinnear attributed the progress to the security system that was implemented in 2006, after TTC employees initiated a one-day wildcat strike on May 29, 2006, over operator safety.

“The members were just absolutely fed up. We shut the city down,” Kinnear said in a telephone interview.

The TTC immediately began rolling out its new security system, installing surveillance cameras and protective barriers on buses and streetcars. It launched a marketing campaign, and an employee assistance program; as well, it formed an Employee Assault Task Force. It also appointed a court advocate to help the operator get through the court system and lobby the Crown for a heavier sentence against the perpetrator.

“The security system is unequivocally a direct result of the walk-out,” Kinnear said. “[TTC management] has now become very reactive, and proactive at times.”

“Except for Line 1 [the Bloor-Danforth subway line running along East York’s southern boundary], the rest of the [trains], our entire bus fleet, and entire streetcar fleet are now equipped with security cameras,” TTC spokesperson Danny Nicholson said in an interview. “So when one of our operators or a customer is assaulted, the police can request a download of that video.”

Now, things are getting better, but assaults have not been completely eliminated.

“[The assault] can be anything from being sworn at — which we consider a verbal assault — to throwing coffee or being punched at,” Nicholson said. “A lot of our operators had people spit on them, which is terrible.”

Jennifer Fedak, 18, witnessed a dispute between a passenger and a bus driver on an east-end bus on her way to school in October. The passenger, in his mid-40s, was screaming and swearing at the bus driver, complaining that the bus was too cold.

“We all thought ‘This guy is nuts,’” Fedak recalled. “The bus driver was like, ‘You need to calm down — [the system] switches over automatically and I’m not in control of it.’”

The passenger continued yelling in the bus driver’s face that it was ‘no excuse.’

But no one did anything, despite witnessing the abuse happening right before them.

“Everyone just sat there,” Fedak said. “I would probably just put myself in danger doing anything.”

It was 7:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and six suited TTC managers were already standing beside the gates of the Sheppard-Yonge subway station, smiling and welcoming riders on their morning commutes. A big red sign read “Meet the Managers,” an initiative that TTC CEO Andy Byford started in 2012, allowing direct communication between customers and TTC management.

“Most questions we get are about how come buses are all bunched up. But we are getting more commendations than complaints. [The public] appreciates that the managers are available,” said Mary Darakjian, who is in charge of the TTC’s pensions.

Between 2008-2011, St. Michael’s Hospital, CAMH and the TTC collaborated on a study to discover the best treatment for assault victims. TTC operators now receive a team approach and what’s called a behavioural intervention, where a psychiatrist, psychologist and occupational therapist are present at consultation sessions to provide support.

Despite the TTC’s efforts to provide support for its operators, money is still key to this and other issues within the transit system. The incoming administration of new Mayor John Tory may provide some relief, with its proposed fare restructuring and other measures.

According to Paul Millett, who works in the engineering construction and expansion department, the TTC has been waiting for budget approval from the city to start tackling under-service, overcrowded subways, as well as increasing capacity of new trains and buying more buses.

“I’m going to use the F-word,” Kinnear said. “Funding!”

Among transit systems in North America, the TTC receives the least amount of funding from upper levels of government. For every ride on the TTC, the city only subsidizes 25 per cent of it. That is close to 75 cents per $3 ride. Transit in other big cities like New York and Boston receive 40 to 60 per cent subsidies from both federal and state governments.

The public seems to agree that more money is needed. Founded in 2011, TTCriders is a public transit advocacy group established by citizens to represent the voices of 1.7 million commuters for a better public transit system.

TTCriders launched their #grumpyrider social media campaign in November, calling on elected officials and the city to understand commuters’ frustration and to provide more funding to TTC operations. They advocated for 10 minutes-or-less bus services and a two-hour fare transfer system.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the assaults stem from fare disputes and inadequate service,” Kinnear said. “The passenger takes it out on somebody else.”

What Kinnear thinks the TTC needs is to increase communication and educate the public that, as an employer, the TTC does not tolerate any kind of abuse to their operators.

“Rules have to be consistent, so people don’t get confused,” Kinnear said. “Assert penalties to crime, look at multi-offenders and ban them from the property.”

Kinnear is looking forward to the next federal election to lobby for more transit funding.

“Let’s make it the transit election,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about anything else. I want to know your transit plan. If we stay focused as a city to do that, I guarantee that all three parties are going to come forward with plans to at least assist the City of Toronto for ongoing funding.”

According to TTC spokesperson Nicholson, the House of Commons is in the process of passing Bill S-221, making amendments to the Criminal Code that would make assaulting a TTC officer equivalent to the offence of assaulting a police officer.