I-TEAM: More than 2 dozen assaults reported on JTA bus drivers

Transit Union seeks harsher punishments, other changes

By Kelly Wiley - I-TEAM reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Daniel Spivey has driven for Jacksonville Transportation Authority for more than three decades. 

Earlier this year, he had a first.

According to an arrest warrant, a man named Elijah McCool was a passenger on Spivey's bus. The warrant says Spivey and McCool had a conversation and McCool became angry. 

"He was mad, and he was voicing his opinion," Spivey said. "And I would like to say right now, whatever Mr. McCool's issue was, I was through with it."

The warrant said Spivey parked his bus to take a break, leaving McCool as the only passenger on the bus. An on-board surveillance camera recorded McCool taking the driver's cup and urinating into it before returning it to the cup holder. 

Spivey can be seen on the video getting back on the bus and resuming his route. He takes a drink from the cup and immediately spits it out. 

"I had Coke. It wasn't sweet. It wasn't nothing like what Coke should taste like," Spivey said. 

JTA considers what happened to Spivey an assault. So did the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, which seven months after the incident charged McCool with poisoning and battery on a public transit employee.

"It's affected me ever since. I have been in counseling," Spivey said. 

Kelly Wiley with JTA driver

The I-TEAM found Spivey's incident was one of more than two dozen reported attacks on JTA bus operators since 2014. The JTA reports show multiple drivers being spit on, some even punched. In 2018, a report shows a female driver was spit on and had a knife put to her throat.

JTA records show between 2015 and now, at least four guns have been pulled on the bus, some of them on bus drivers. 

A JTA incident report from earlier this year describes a man brandishing a gun on the bus. The report states the operator told dispatch the man got on the bus and stated he wanted to go to Rosa Parks bus station. When the operator told him the bus was not going to Rosa Parks, the male proceeded to ask other passengers for money. According to the report, the passenger pulled out a gun and "clicked" it while getting off the bus. 

According to the report, while dispatch was notifying the operator on another bus to be on the lookout for the man with a gun, the other operator responded that she was in the area and saw the man. A few moments later, the operator frantically called dispatch via radio saying the man pulled the gun on her. She was advised to leave the area immediately. 

JTA Chief Safety Officer Ivan Mote said the agency is working to prevent such attacks from happening.

"Our attitude is that we don't want any assaults," Mote said. "Zero would be the goal. However, even when our operators do everything right, we could have a passenger who is just having a bad day."

In March 2019, the JTA board of directors recommended the board approve a purchase of 164 protection barriers for drivers, costing more than $600,000. 

The summary of need said "bus operators are confronted with an array of distractions and potential assaults every day. These barriers will provide a level of protection for them." 

So far, Mote said, they've retrofitted 146 of the protective shields in their buses. 

JTA records show since 2016, more than 170 people were banned for a year from riding on JTA buses. Five were trespassed indefinitely. 

Mote said the agency provides pictures to JSO, supervisors and operators themselves, but admitted some attackers are able to get back on the bus. 

"We have multiple routes. We run a huge service -- and sometimes they can get back on the bus without us detecting them," Mote said. 

Kelly with union leadership

Union President DeWayne Russell said he's known it to happen. 

"Had a female operator punched like that. Five or six months he was back downtown, walking the streets, riding the bus," Russell said. 

Assaults on bus drivers are happening industry-wide, not just within JTA buses. 

A woman who attacked a bus driver in China after missing her stop was partially responsible for a crash that killed 12 people on board.

JTA drivers attended the 2018 funeral of Thomas Dunn, a Tampa bus driver, who was stabbed by a rider.

The local transit union said it wants harsher punishments for attackers and cleared buses for bathroom breaks.

"We deserve some security and some assurance that our workplace is safe," Spivey said, "and that's part of it."

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