DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — Assaults on subway and bus operators are on this rise — and transit workers, union leaders and local authorities are looking for ways to stem the surge.
On Thursday, the first National Transit Workers Assault Conference opened at the New York City College of Technology in Downtown Brooklyn with passionate remarks from transit union leader John Samuelsen about his members' safety concerns.
"Imagine four or five assaults on transit workers a week," said Samuelsen. "If four or five cops were getting assaulted on our buses and trains they would bring out the National Guard."
Samuelsen’s comments were met with heavy applause from audience members, many of whom wore the blue uniform shirts of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Many of the transit workers attending the conference have had personal encounters with on-the-job violence. Richard Thorne, chairman of the Flatbush depot in Brooklyn, knows just how dangerous his occupation can be.
"The issue of assault is really touching to me because one of the operators at our depot was murdered," Thorne said. "So, that is a very dear subject for me."
Thorne's fallen co-worker was Edwin Thomas, a 46-year-old bus driver who was brutally stabbed to death in 2008 by an irate passenger.
And though murder in the transit system is rare, there has been an uptick in reported assaults. Violent attacks of transit workers rose to 259 in 2011, up from 219 the year before. In the first three months of this year alone, 67 attacks have already been reported, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
Representatives from the MTA, the city's district attorneys and the NYPD discussed possible solutions to such violence. Joseph Lhota, CEO of the MTA, said that 1,400 security cameras were added to the New York City transit system last year and 4,000 will eventually be in operation. He also said that efforts are being made to increase the number of security cameras and protective plexiglass barriers installed in MTA buses.