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Austin bus driver suspended for using cell phone to call 911

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Adawna DeVine, 47, felt a sink in her stomach as she drove her bus to the stop near Republic Square. She recognized one of the people waiting to get on. A man holding onto a walker with his dog’s leash wrapped around his hand.

In the weeks before, Devine reported the same passenger three times to her supervisors at Capital Metro. In each report, she detailed how the man would allegedly threaten her when he got on the bus.

“I kept begging for help and for someone to do something about this because it’s going to keep happening without intervention,” said DeVine. “It was bigger than I could deal with.”

When Devine approached the bus stop, surveillance video from inside shows her opening the doors for the people lined up at the stop. It then shows her quickly close the doors to the bus before the man could get on. The move caught his dog in the doors.

When Devine opened the doors back up, the passenger hoisted himself onto the platform and began screaming.

“I’m going to beat your mother f—— a–,” said the man.

DeVine asked the man to get off the bus and then asked for him to back up so she could leave her seat. The passenger told Devine he would not move, and she wasn’t going anywhere either.

“Once I was pinned in my seat, I knew I needed urgent help, like immediate help, and that’s why I called 911,” said Devine.

When police arrived, they can be heard over bus surveillance telling Devine they could not press charges against the passenger because they didn’t hear the threats themselves. Officers noted in their police report, the man had no weapons on him. Officers told Devine she could bring her evidence to the courthouse and ask to file charges herself.

“I felt like I was going to have to be the one to protect me,” said Devine. “I also wanted to get a restraining order so, the next time the police came they would be able to do more.”

The ATU Local 1091 requested the bus surveillance video of Devine and the passenger from CapMetro’s contractor MV Transportation. The company provided the surveillance video of the incident, but they also notified Devine she was suspended.

Suspension letter from Capital Metro contractor MV Transportation

According to the suspension notice, Devine was suspended because she used her cell phone during the incident. A violation of company policy.

“Not in my 33 years as a bus operator. That is the first time I have ever seen someone get in trouble for calling 911,” said ATU Local 1091 President Brent Payne. “I had to physically go up there to get her off suspension, but she was off work for maybe two to three weeks unpaid.”

Capital Metro’s Chief Security Officer Gardner Tabon declined an interview on the agency’s safety protocols and policies on cell phone use. In a statement, the agency said operators are trained to use other communication methods on the buses in an emergency. Operators can send a “priority request to talk” or hit a panic button, which CapMetro says immediately sends police officers to the bus’s location.

The problem, according to Payne, is the length of time it takes supervisors to get to the location of the bus and in some cases, connect operators with the police. In response to our requests for the average response times to priority and panic calls, a Capital Metro spokesperson said the agency does not track its own response times.

“Some operators say they never come, and they end up having to call 911 themselves,” said Payne. “I just think right now the response from 911 is better. I know Cap Metro is working with transit police to increase the response times, but right now until that happens — 911 is the safest bet to do.”

ATU Local 1091 President Brent Payne stands inside the union’s meeting room. (KXAN PHOTO\BEN FRIBERG)

“Some operators say they never come.”

BRENT PAYNE, PRESIDENT OF THE AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION LOCAL 1091

Devine says she called both police and used the priority talk button on the bus to call her supervisors. According to the Austin Police Department report, Devine’s supervisor issued a criminal trespass to the man seen on video when he arrived.

“The police came first. They came way ahead and I felt so much better once they were there,” said Devine.

In a public safety survey conducted in the spring of 2021, more than 63% of Capital Metro’s frontline staff said security needed improvements. Thirty percent said they feel unsafe while working and want to see police officers or uniformed staff to create a sense of security on the buses. The survey concluded, “unsafe passenger behavior is the primary cause of the most safety concerns employees and customers have.”

It’s not just bus drivers who are impacted by violent outbursts on city buses. On Sept. 11, police arrested a man who allegedly shoved a 68-year-old woman to the ground while trying to board a Capital Metro bus.

“I am trained to be a bus driver and operate a large vehicle and do friendly customer service and hook up a harness for a handicap chair, but I am not a police officer, or a social worker or someone who can restrain people,” said Devine. “I don’t have any of those skills, but I am being put on those buses completely alone without any recourse.”

In August, the Board of Directors for Capital Metro voted to create its own transit police, but according to presentations at the August board meeting – it will likely be more than a year before it is operational.

“Over the last year and a half, we have had a lot of problems with repeat offenders verbally assaulting the operators, some physical, yelling – just overall threatening behavior,” said Payne. “I’m glad that no operator has been killed or maimed. But it’s just a matter of time before the odds run out on a particular operator.”

After weeks on unpaid suspension, Devine testified in front of the Capital Metro board of directors about being removed from her job for using her cell phone to call 911. Following her testimony, Capital Metro allowed Devine to start working again and paid her for the weeks she went without a paycheck during the suspension.

“I want them to know that is what’s going on at the management level and that is what we as operators are having to deal with,” said Devine. “That puts me in a situation where I have to choose between my life and my job.”

Capital Metro bus operator Adawna Devine at Republic Square. (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg]

Written by Kelly WileyBen Friberg, Addie Costello, KXAN Intern

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