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FOX 13 Investigates: UTA insists it’s safe despite more than 150 assaults on drivers

The data we've acquired from 2013 to 2022 shows UTA’s employees are being punched, kicked, shot at, and spit on at an unprecedented rate
FOX 13 Investigates: Utah Transit Authority
Posted at 9:44 PM, Jun 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-07 18:01:35-04

SALT LAKE CITY — For months, the FOX 13 Investigates team has been studying violent crimes on Utah Transit Authority trains and buses.

UTA ridership has dropped 61% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but assaults on UTA employees have grown exponentially.

The disparity has left drivers wanting to know why UTA continues to advertise itself as safe.

By our count, there have been 150 reports of assault against a UTA employee from January 2020 through April 7, 2022.

Just 75 of the 150 known cases were reported to UTA police.

Because UTA does not keep a comprehensive database of assaults on employees, tracking cases can be difficult. FOX 13 News arrived at the figure by cross-referencing data provided by UTA and the UTA Police Department.

There were only six reports of assault against an employee in 2018, according to a spreadsheet provided by UTA.

“Our number one priority every day is safety,” said UTA spokesperson Carl Arky. “I really do think it’s safe... UTA is a great place to work, and I’m not just saying that because I work there.”

In preparing this report, FOX 13 News has quietly spoken with numerous UTA employees, none of whom agreed to be interviewed on camera.

Some of the workers said they were afraid to lose their job.

UTA policy prohibits employees from speaking with the media.

"The intolerance level has gone up”

According to UTA police, someone shot “five bullets” into a UTA bus on February 10, 2022.

Officers said they believe the shooter, who has yet to be identified, was angry because they couldn’t get out of the Burger King parking lot on 3300 South and Highland Drive. They believe the suspect was driving either a silver or white Land Rover Freelander with a cargo carrier on top.

The bullets did not hit the driver, but he was scared. He was a new employee, his first time being the victim of violent crime as a UTA operator.

“This man didn’t deserve this,” Arky said. “It’s disturbing. It’s disappointing. It’s appalling. We’re upset about it, but at the same time – I can’t say that we’re shocked by it either.”

Arky said his lack of surprise comes from the way he’s witnessed society devolve over the past few years.

“(Assaults) went up during COVID, and it hasn’t stopped,” Arky explained. “People aren’t as patient. People are in a hurry. People are on edge. The intolerance level has gone up, and unfortunately our operators are having to deal with that.”

After the incident, the driver’s friend and coworker wrote online about the way she felt he was being treated.

“Sadly the operator is NOT being well taken care of 😥 he needs more counseling and more time off, he has PTSD and can’t sleep at night, yet he’s required to continue driving,” the friend wrote. “The Union and his Supervisors aren’t making these things happen for him 😟 does he need to go the media route?”

FOX 13 News has not spoken with the driver.

UTA disputed that the employee was “NOT being well taken care of.”

“From UTA’s standpoint, he wasn’t being forced back to work,” Arky said. “I think he was under the impression that maybe he needed to get back to work sooner than he wanted to come back to work, or felt he couldn’t come back to work, so there was probably a misunderstanding there. I think it’s been cleared up, and I think that he understands now, and we’ve addressed that with him.”

Arky said UTA does provide counseling and allows employees to receive workers’ compensation, if it’s approved.

12 minutes, 17 seconds

Bus surveillance video obtained by FOX 13 News shows a man taking a lanyard out of his pocket while speaking with a UTA driver on June 6, 2021 near Redwood Road.

Then the video shows the suspect wrapping the lanyard around his hand, swinging it at the driver’s head.

Prosecutors charged Steven Hamblin with a hate crime for assaulting the transgender driver.

Hamblin pleaded not guilty.

According to the department’s report, it took officers 17 minutes to respond.

High-level UTA sources said the driver was denied workers’ compensation because she was already receiving therapy prior to the incident.

The driver declined to comment.

...

On April 3, 2021, UTA police arrested suspect Lorin Lee on suspicion of using a “pooper scooper” as a weapon to assault an employee.

In that case, according to the department’s report, officers arrived within two minutes.

On March 13, 2021, UTA police arrested suspect Francis Barth on suspicion of aggravated assault and threatening to hijack a bus by using a fire extinguisher as a weapon.

According to the department’s report, UTA police arrived in 11 minutes. The Salt Lake City Police Department assisted.

...

FOX 13 News’ review of 2020 – 2022 records show, on average, assaults on UTA workers take officers 12 minutes 17 seconds to respond.

Thomas Rudd was a UTA driver for six years. Before that, he was a Provo police officer.

He said he believes the average UTA PD response time is unacceptable.

“They don’t do anything, I’m sorry to say,” Rudd said. “I’d say an acceptable (response time) would be two to three minutes.”

Charlette Bills, another former UTA employee, said she was shocked to learn about the number of cases and the slow response times.

“I think it should only be a couple of minutes,” Bills said. “That’s just like if you have a dying spouse at home – 12 minutes, they’d be dead. I think that’s too long.”

FOX 13 News brought those concerns to UTA.

“Does that seem slow to you?” asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets.

“No, and I’ll tell you why,” Arky responded. “Our police department does an amazing job. They’re covering a system that stretches from Provo up to Ogden and goes from Tooele up to Park City... That’s a lot of ground to cover.”

Typically, only UTA police respond to cases involving buses or trains, although sometimes UTA will call another agency to see if officers can arrive faster.

Rudd said he believes UTA PD falls behind because there are too many cases and not enough officers.

“My wife was thinking about coming to UTA, and I said absolutely not,” Rudd said. “No, I would not let my mother ride on it.”

“I respect that. I think everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Arky said. “But at the end of the day, I have to look at the numbers, and are the numbers any worse or riskier than a lot of professions? … There are so many people who get onboard our trains and our buses every day and mind their manners, mind their own business.”

Unreported cases

FOX 13 News discovered a pattern while speaking with current and former UTA employees. Many of them said they have been assaulted, but they never reported it to police or a supervisor.

Instead, many drivers described becoming “numb” to the difficult passengers who argue or spit on them.

Bills was never assaulted while working for UTA but described hearing horror stories from her coworkers shortly after being hired.

“I grew up riding a bus, but as soon as I was able to drive them? I’m like – I'm not getting back on those buses!” Bills said. “I think they do say they’re safe because they’re trying to get people to ride it more, but I just think they’re that safe.”

Most cases of assault on UTA drivers are reported in Salt Lake County.

Rudd said he was assaulted by an angry passenger in Utah County.

“He was looking at me, and then he swung at me,” Rudd described, “but I never did report that, to tell you the truth... I didn’t figure that I would get any kind of results favorable to myself. The customer was always right, no matter what.”

FOX 13 News’ review of the cases that were reported to police show most confrontations started with riders who did not want to pay or wear a mask.

Arky said UTA drivers were never expected to enforce the COVID-19 mask mandate.

Rudd said he believes refusing to enforce policies makes people feel entitled and eventually violent.

“If you’re going to have policies, enforce the dang things,” Rudd said. “There were certain policies that were never ever enforced whatsoever.”

Others said they feel like a driver’s friendly and accommodating attitude goes a long way in preventing violence.

“I’ve heard there’s assaults. In eight years, I’ve never had anything,” said former UTA driver Margo Daykin. “I would like to reflect the positive of the company.”

Forward momentum

Some drivers complimented UTA police for making arrests in approximately half of the 75 cases that were reported to the department.

Arky credited the advancement of bus surveillance cameras and the hard work of dedicated officers.

Not all cases have resulted in a conviction. In some cases, suspects serve a minimal amount of time behind bars.

In 2022, state legislators debated a bill that would increase penalties for those who commit crimes against transit workers. The bill did not pass.

Representative Stephen Handy promised to revisit the bill in 2023.

Arky said, over the past few months, UTA has implemented a new system where each assault case is reviewed after the fact to improve safety.

“Things happen. There’s no question, things happen,” Arky said. “(Our employees) are dealing with the public on a day-in day-out basis. We see that. We hear that. We understand that. We’re trying to address it every day, in every way we possibly can.”

Leaders are also making a more proactive effort now to stay in contact with victims after an assault, according to the agency.

“We’re not perfect,” Arky said. “I don’t know anyone who is perfect, but we strive to be perfect. We try.”

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