DENVER (KDVR) – An analysis of public records obtained by the Problem Solvers found Regional Transportation District bus operators officially reported safety and security concerns – like unruly passengers who have assaulted them, thrown food or drink on them, or spit on them – at least an average of 1.5 times per week during 2021.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests the number is actually much higher because many drivers never file official reports or press charges.

“It’s an underreported situation,” said Lance Longenbohn, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, representing approximately 769 RTD bus operators. “Even in this modern age, people are still hesitant to…talk about things.”

The incidents reviewed by the Problem Solvers do not include complaints about passenger drug use on-board or at Union Station.

The Problem Solvers found nearly 80 incidents in 2021 in which RTD bus operators reported being victimized by passengers, including at least one in which an operator reported that a male passenger threatened to shoot him after he asked a couple, traveling with a baby, to lower their loud music.

“Shut up!” the female passenger replied as she and her male companion charged toward the driver. “I said shut the f— up!” she said, using a racial slur. Her male companion then said, “I’ll shoot your a–!”

Bus operator stabbed

In April, an altercation between a driver, Khalil Baaqi, and a passenger resulted in the driver being stabbed with a “two or three-inch blade,” according to an official RTD record. Baaqi said he suffered a deep gash, for which he had to receive treatment at a hospital.

“We are put right dead right in the middle of an environment where you have violent people. You have people who are criminals, and you have people who are mad at the world, and who’s more convenient? Who is more of a perfect, convenient target to take out some of that frustration than the driver of a bus you’re about to get on?” he said.

Baaqi said the passenger who stabbed him refused to get off the bus and threw what appeared to be a banana at Baaqi. Baaqi said he was later fired for engaging in the fight with the passenger.

“We’re in constant danger. I mean, it’s not an easy job,” he said.

In that situation, according to the records provided by RTD, the “passenger left the scene before transit police got to the scene.”

Baaqi said the route he drove along Colfax Avenue, the 15, was considered a “high risk” route. It is also the most traveled route, according to RTD.

Of all the complaints filed in 2021, more than 27% could be attributed to that line or to the 15L, a similar route.

“It’s gotten far worse than it used to be,” said Longenbohn. “Especially during the pandemic, people are all very high strung with all of the concerns and all of the additional demands on them.”

Longenbohn said he has received complaints from other drivers about people smoking drugs — like fentanyl — or cigarettes on their buses, but security officials are sometimes slow to respond.

He said the process of reporting an incident can be cumbersome for drivers as well.

“Rather than somebody reporting something to someone who can actually do something about it, they report it to dispatch or control, and then control has to report it. It’s a daisy chain rather than a direct report,” he said.

Why passengers become aggressive

In several bus surveillance videos reviewed by the Problem Solvers, passengers often became agitated when they were asked to deboard the bus; after missing their stop or being perceived to have missed a stop; when they left belongings behind or outside the bus; or when the bus operators asked them for proof of payment for their rides.

Drivers have also complained that some passengers have become belligerent when they have been asked to wear a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

The Problem Solvers observed multiple moments within the footage when passengers spit on drivers, sprayed window cleaner on the driver, or reached around a Plexiglas protective barrier to dump entire drinks or food items on the driver.

Operator is doused with a drink

“You’re like, ‘What is going on? Am I going to get Hepatitis? Am I going to get corona(virus)?’ You know. It’s scary. It really is,” said Dan Williams a 22-year RTD bus veteran who was splashed in the face with a passenger’s drink in June.

“Fortunately, my glasses kept anything from getting into my eyes. My mask kept anything out of my nose and mouth and stuff, and I couldn’t believe what just happened.”

Williams said passengers may say or do something inappropriate or threaten him every few days, but this was the first time in his career when a passenger dumped liquid on him while he was seated in the driver’s seat.

He said the passenger was angry with him, on behalf of another passenger who was unable to provide a proper bus transfer ticket.

“I was just furious. I was furious. What made him think that he had the right to do that to me?” he said.

Williams told the Problem Solvers he suffered for several months after the incident.

“Every time anyone approached me on the bus, I was nervous and looking at their hands. ‘Do they have something that could splash me? Is it him?’” he said.

Staffing shortages complicate security

“I look, and I think, ‘We can fix this. We gotta figure this out,’” said Longenbohn, who told the Problem Solvers that RTD will be installing sturdier protective barriers for drivers on new buses.

He said many of the issues leading to the problems on the buses are societal issues that need more attention from other community leaders.

Some passengers are using the buses as shelters rather than for transportation, he said.

“If we can get enough resources and enough people who know how this should be fixed, I believe we can fix it, but in the meantime, it is just every day, very concerning,” he said.

Baaqi said he feels more security officers should ride the bus routes that are particularly troublesome.

RTD responds

“We do not have the ability to provide security personnel to outfit every single one of our buses or our trains,” said Debra Johnson, the general manager and CEO of RTD. “We try to do it in such a way where we have individuals who are roving.”

Johnson said RTD officials are looking at security and safety incident data and “discerning where is the greatest problem, and then, allocating resources that are available to actually help mitigate those circumstances.”

However, she said she needs more people to make the process a success.

“Everybody is having a staffing shortage. That’s not to absolve us of creating a safe and secure environment. I’m just qualifying what some of the obstacles are as we go forward,” she said.

RTD has a contract with Allied Universal Security Services, “not to exceed $67,716,988.56.” The company’s contract allows for it to provide as many as 300 personnel to help monitor commuter rail and buses.

The company provides some armed personnel and others who serve as ambassadors by helping answer questions about fares and how to use public transportation.

However, the security contract is currently 25% understaffed, according to RTD.

In 2021, RTD also fined the company $153,500 for failing to provide a required crew member on RTD commuter rail.

RTD told the Problem Solvers that it also relies on 20 sworn transit police officers and the equivalent of approximately 65 secondary city police officers to help handle security issues on public transportation.

A summertime peer review of the RTD security model, handled by the American Public Transportation Association, found the transit police officers had limited power in the City and County of Denver and recommended RTD “collaborate with the City and County of Denver officials to resolve the jurisdictional issues that prohibit RTD transit police officers from taking direct law enforcement action within the City and County of Denver.”

According to Johnson, these transit police officers received the authority to write misdemeanor citations in July. Since that time, they’ve issued 36 citations. Transit police, however, must rely on Denver police to take someone into custody.

The peer review panel also found contracted security officers had less training than sworn transit police officers and recommended RTD “employ a phased approach to increase internal transit police staffing levels and reduce the number of contracted transit security officers.”

“The community policing blueprint is in the process of being finalized and will be released upon completion,” RTD told the Problem Solvers in response to the recommendations.

Bus operators told the Problem Solvers many of the problems that exist at Union Station – including drug use and unsanitary conditions – continue to grow and are spilling onto the bus lines.

Johnson said RTD cannot solve the problems by itself.

“RTD can be at the table and lean in because these issues are impacting our frontline employees. They’re impacting our customers, and I want to ensure that there is a safe working environment, but I can’t do that when I’m dealing with issues that are plaguing society as a whole,” she said.

Allied Universal declined to do an interview with the Problem Solvers and would not answer specific questions. However, it provided the following statement:

Allied Universal security professionals work closely with Regional Transportation District transit police and other partners to keep people and businesses safe in the Denver community by averting threats and responding to emergencies.

Like all businesses across the country, the Allied Universal team has been impacted by staffing challenges as the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to cause significant disruption to labor markets. During this challenging time, thanks to the bravery and dedication of our security professionals, we’ve been able continued to support RTD and other partners despite heightened risks due to the pandemic. We are grateful to the partnership with RTD and other partners that have worked collaboratively to address staffing shortages as it has truly taken a united effort.

We truly appreciate our front-line heroes who keep our neighbors safe on a daily basis and thank them for their dedication during these challenging times.