The Washington, D.C.-area Metrobus system is experiencing a spike in fare cheaters, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.
Agency records show an almost 80 percent rise in police citations and warnings for bus “fare evasion” since 2016. The I-Team review found the surge occurred because of – or in spite of – crackdowns by Metro Transit Police.
Fare evasion by passengers reduces revenue for the agency and also endangers employees. Transit police officials said a series of recent assaults against bus drivers were triggered by disputes over unpaid bus fare. Bus surveillance camera footage of one of those incidents was obtained by the I-Team under a public records request. In the video, a 64-year-old passenger is seen arguing with a bus driver during an afternoon trip through Washington, D.C. According to police records, the passenger pulled a white-handled, three-inch knife and slashed the bus driver in the face. The passenger and driver were arguing over an unpaid bus fare, according to police records.
The passenger arrested for the slashing incident was charged with assault but avoided trial after being ruled mentally incompetent by a D.C. judge.
In other footage obtained by the I-Team, passengers are seen spitting on or punching bus operators in fare disputes. The footage was released by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates Metrobus.
At least four bus operators are on leave from the agency because of injuries suffered from attacks by passengers after disputes over bus fare, leaders with the Local 689 Amalgamated Transit Union said.
There are risks to bus operators who challenge fare cheats, union official and 17-year bus operator Carroll Johnson said.
“When (drivers) put themselves at risk, they put the public at risk,” Johnson said. “Something can happen. An innocent passenger can get hurt. We need more transit police on these buses.”
Agency records show a spike in fare evasion cases between 2015 and 2016. In 2015, the agency reported 1,077 citations, arrests and warnings for fare cheating issued by transit police. The number spiked to 1,870 during the same time period in 2016, according to agency records. The increase carried over into 2017, the I-Team learned. The A2 and X2 routes are among the most frequently targeted by fare evaders.
Metro Transit Police said they are combatting fare cheats with specialized enforcement details. The I-Team deployed a series of cameras to watch one of those enforcement efforts, which WMATA calls “HITE – High Intensity Targeted Enforcement.” The agency’s officers, many wearing fluorescent green vests, board buses during peak hours to check for fare cheats or unruly behavior.
According to a February board of directors report, the HITE enforcement details have helped reduce assaults against bus drivers.
“Bus operator assaults were reduced by 14%, from 87 in 2015 to 75 assaults in 2016,” the report said. ”At three Metrobus divisions, Four Mile, Shepherd Parkway, and Western, bus operator assaults were reduced by at least 50%.”
The I-Team saw suspected fare cheating occur on the same buses being policed by the special enforcement details. One officer, who was authorized to speak with the I-Team, said it is common to see fare evasion occur in plain sight during special bus enforcement details.
“It’s the same situation on the rail system,” the officer said.
“This is not a new problem,” Johnson said. “This is a systemic problem that's been going on for quite some time."
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.