'I have never seen it like this': Durham bus drivers report 6.6x increase in onboard incidents

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham City Council held a work session Thursday afternoon, where council members discussed a number of topics, ranging from crime to bus driver safety to council compensation.

The issue of driver safety stems from recent incidents involving GoDurham staff, who expressed concern due to the uptick.

"I have never seen it like this," said Percival Patterson, a GoDurham driver who also serves as President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1493.

"We have had several operators assaulted on the bus the last couple of weeks," added Tameka Walker, a fellow GoDurham bus driver.

Sean Egan, Durham's transportation director, there have said there have been about 100 reported incidents this year out of 2.6 million passenger trips. In 2019, there were just 35 reported incidents out of more than 6 million passenger trips. That's an increase of 6.6 times as many incidents in two years.

Egan notes many of the incidents involve a violation of the standards of conduct, ranging from playing of loud music to disobeying rules of masking.

"We're also working with the Durham Police Department to decrease on-board incidents and increase patrols in locations where there have been incidents. Right now, we have four buses with operator safety barriers that enable the operator to close the barrier and be protected within the operators seat. We are ordering eight more buses on order, which will be arriving later this year with those barriers and we're developing a cost-estimate for retro-fitting the balance of the fleet," said Egan.

"We ask that we have somebody in law enforcement ride these buses so that our operators can be safe," added Patterson.

The issues come as GoDurham is facing a shortage of drivers, with Egan stating that 20% of budgeted positions are either vacant or unavailable for service. They have implemented wage and bonus increases to address recruitment and retainment efforts.

Later in the meeting, Durham interim police chief Shari Montgomery presented crime statistics to city leadership. The majority of crime categories saw year-over-year decreases through the second quarter, including burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, property crime, robbery, aggravated assault, and violent crime. However, rape and homicides are up.

Through September 18, there have been 32 fatal shootings in Durham. Over the same time period in 2020, there were 22 fatal shootings. Despite the increase in fatal shootings, the number of shootings, persons shot, and non-fatal injuries are all down in 2021 compared to 2020.

Another point of emphasis was centered around staffing and response times. Durham Police Department reported there has been a 3% decrease in Priority 1 calls for service between January and June 2021 compared to the same time period last year. The average response time is 6.1 minutes, slightly slower than the target time of 5.8 minutes. On that note, they are responding to calls in less than 5 minutes for 51.9% of calls, below the target of 57% of calls.

"Patrol staffing levels affect response times. We continue to use overtime funds to pay for supplemental patrol officers, which increases our ability to respond quickly to emergency calls. We have adjusted the supplemental staffing to put more officers on the road during peak call times," said Montgomery.

RELATED: Durham's 911 center's response times worsen as calls surge

Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton voiced concerns over the slowing response times.

"Even though it says that our calls have decreased, but if you look at it compared to 2020, we had 60-70-80% staffing. So there were more (officers) to respond to the calls which would reduce response times. (Recently), our staffing levels are in the 40s (percent). So we don't have as many cars available, or patrol or staffing available," Montgomery responded.

DPD continues to have open sworn and non-sworn positions; there are 474 sworn staff, with 556 positions authorized. There are 113 non-sworn staff, with 126 authorized positions.

"The biggest issue that we face is competitive wages. We lose a lot to other agencies because we're just not competitive. And that's an issue across the nation. There's just not as many people joining law enforcement so the agencies that they are joining have a competitive wage. And we just aren't able to compete," Montgomery said.

Montgomery also shared statistics about the Adult Misdemeanor Diversion Program from October 2015 through June 2021. Over that time period, there have been 374 participants, all of whom have completed the program, and just 16 participants have re-offended within one year of completion.
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