DENVER (KDVR) – Drug issues continue to plague RTD buses, trains, stops and stations, according to a Problem Solvers analysis of recent RTD records.
The Problem Solvers filed a public records request for two-and-a-half months of records showing “every time a bus driver or passenger reported a safety or security issue (like an assault) or any transportation-related incident in which the driver expressed a safety concern.” The request is for records between April, when RTD implemented a new security strategy, and mid-June.
The Problem Solvers analysis found at least 75 reports of drivers and passengers complaining about people using drugs or smoking on public transportation.
In one April incident, a passenger had a drug needle stuck in their arm when they were found unresponsive on a route 51 bus, which travels along Sheridan Boulevard.
“The party is not breathing and has a syringe in their arm, EMS is on the scene,” the report said. The person “did not respond to multiple CPR attempts or Narcan and did not have a pulse when they left the scene,” the report continued.
“It’s not just an RTD problem. It’s a societal problem,” said Ron Short, the vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001. Short said the union is encouraging all local municipalities to make efforts that would help combat the drug issues.
“The fentanyl situation is overreaching everywhere in the metro area,” he said.
The Problem Solvers also found at least 34 mentions of someone who was drinking or drunk on or near public transportation and more than 118 complaints about verbal altercations or rude comments.
Dozens of reported incidents related to people who refused to pay the bus fare.
RTD operator fired after confronting man on drugs
Gary Martinez, a bus operator who had worked for RTD for approximately 17 years, said he was fired from his job in May for confronting a man who made his way into the operator’s area of an RTD bus while the man was high on drugs.
“It just ripped my heart out, just like, being there all this time without any real (disciplinary) incidents and them just firing you just like that, you know?” he said.
Martinez, who was an operator along the 16th Street Mall route, pepper-sprayed the man, against RTD policy.
“I was afraid he was going to come at me and start hitting me,” Martinez told the Problem Solvers.
Martinez said the man got into the bus as he was preparing to relieve another driver.
The Problem Solvers obtained an incident report which shows Martinez said he had turned his back for a moment and then saw the man starting to touch some of the bus controls.
“I thought I was doing a good thing by trying to save the bus,” he said.
According to the report, the man had gotten into the driver’s seat of the Mall shuttle “because they said they were cold.” Records show the man was “incredibly high and the drug may have been heroin.” The report said, “a drug needle was found on the suspect’s person.” The other driver left the scene to summon a security team.
Martinez said he knows addressing drug abuse is a “challenge,” but, he said, “this never would have happened if RTD wouldn’t have let it go this far. RTD is always scared of the public suing them.”
RTD declines to comment on the incident
RTD declined to speak about the incident and declined to share Martinez’s disciplinary history with the Problem Solvers, but Martinez said he had been a good employee with only a few “fender benders” throughout his career.
He did admit to the Problem Solvers that he was carrying the pepper spray against RTD’s policy and that he had initially lied about using it. He also refused to write his own incident report.
“RTD specifically prohibits the possession of weapons by any ‘on-duty’ employee, while on or off District property,” RTD’s threat assessment procedural guidelines say. “That includes keeping or transporting a weapon in a vehicle. Weapons include firearms, knives, explosives, pepper spray and other items with the potential to inflict harm.”
Martinez said a previous passenger had taken swings at him and spit on him, so he carried the pepper spray because he believed it was a safer option if he needed to protect himself.
“The police have it. They use it with the homeless population, so I thought it was something that we could do,” Martinez said. “I thought it was harmless, you know. It kind of would help us, so we can defend ourself (sic) and not really injure anybody. You never know what’s going to happen with the homeless population,” he said, explaining that he has encountered passengers with knives in the past.
“You barely tell them, ‘How’s it going?’ and they blow up on you, and start, you know, saying cuss words at you and start telling you, ‘Just drive the bus,’ you know. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Martinez said he would consider taking his job back if offered, but he chose not to pursue the traditional grievance process after being fired. Typically, the union would file a grievance, but Martinez decided against pursuing that option.
Martinez said he didn’t want to be out of work while fighting for his job.
“You’re out of work all that time, and I just didn’t want to put my family through more chaos than what I already put them through,” he said. “So, I figured it was time to step away and try to find something else.”
Martinez said he liked his job as a bus operator.
“Dealing with people is a little hard, but you learn by your mistakes, and you try to do the best that you can and continue forward by treating people how you want to be treated and doing the best you can for the work you’re doing and the company that you’re working for,” Martinez said.