14R bus on Mission street
The 14R on Mission near 22nd. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

A pair of witnesses described a brazen Jan. 3 attack on the driver of their Muni bus, and said police subsequently allowed the man to escape untouched.

On its own, the incident, in which a passenger dragged a 14-Mission bus driver out of his seat and into the street, was alarming enough. But Daniel and Becky Cohen were unprepared for the police response that followed that Monday evening just after 6 p.m.

“I was expecting them to go over there and to arrest him on the spot,” said Daniel, who got off the bus to help break up the fight that ensued between the driver and a shirtless, maskless passenger.

The police arrived quickly and the driver, holding a handkerchief to his bloody nose and mouth, told the officers that he wanted to press charges, the Cohens said. All the while, the attacker stood 20 feet away, but the officers showed little interest in the suspect or in talking to witnesses.

“Several of us were telling them, ‘that’s the guy right there,’” Becky said, “and it’s like, they kind of ignored that.”

The suspect, she said, seemed to be waiting for the officers to come arrest him; he was standing around against a nearby wall with people he appeared to know.

But to the Cohens’ surprise, the police saw the man, but didn’t take action. “[They] look at the guy, he was 20 feet away, and decided that, instead of running after the guy and catching him, they needed to go get their car, wherever their car was,” Daniel said. “And then the guy took off.”

A few moments later, the police officers sped past in their car.

“Let’s put it this way: If this is the way that the police do their job, it’s not a very good way to do it,” Daniel said. He plans to file a complaint with the Department of Police Accountability.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirmed that an incident between a bus operator and passenger took place on that day around Mission and Ninth streets, and said a police investigation is underway.

But SFPD Public Information Officer Robert Rueca said Tuesday that he was unable to locate a police report for the incident.

“Violence against our operators is not tolerated at all whatsoever,” wrote SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato in an email. She said safety mechanisms to protect bus operators include a plexiglass barrier between the driver and passengers, real-time video surveillance and a radio system that can call police.

Kato did not comment on the police response to the incident, nor did she confirm whether video footage of the incident was captured or provided to the police department.

The Cohens, longtime residents of San Francisco who now split their time between the Bay Area and France, were aboard a full bus around 6:15 p.m. in early January when the unmasked man with no shirt boarded in SoMa without paying his fare.

“The driver said something, I don’t know what,” Becky said. “And the guy turned around and went over and started punching the bus driver.” Although the driver attempted to stand and defend himself, she watched as the man dragged the driver out of his seat, off the bus, and onto the sidewalk.

There on Mission Street, the fight continued as dozens of bus passengers sat confused — “very quiet and stunned,” Daniel said. He and two others from the bus ran outside to intervene. Becky, meanwhile, called the police for help.

What the Cohens witnessed was far from an isolated incident: Assaults on drivers happen often enough that the SFMTA routinely offers “trainings, assault prevention guidelines, and agency-sponsored PSA campaigns to remind riders that our operations and frontline staff are people, too — and should be treated with dignity and respect,” according to Kato.

Kato did not comment on the frequency of assaults on bus operators, but the 14-Mission bus driver appeared all too familiar with the situation.

“At the end, I went and I said, ‘I’m really sorry this happened to you,’” Becky said.

“And he goes, ‘Every day.’”

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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22 Comments

  1. What an awful story. Certainly the lack of action by the police needs to be investigated but it’s absolutely unacceptable that MUNI drivers and passengers are subject to violence and harrassment. We need security on MUNI buses. We’re a transit-first City, right? We need to do a much better job of making “taking the bus” a first class experience.

    1. The people of San Francisco don’t like SFMTA (MUNI) and that is at the heart of the problems the operators face on a daily basis. I could not earn enough to transport the most entitled people of the entire United States of America. Who is to blame? San Franciscans, the SFMTA board and the entire executive branch of SFMTA. Get rid of the top heavy executives that just collect salaries and hand that money where it is needed most, where the rubber tire meets the road – operators and those that actually keep it running and not the mouths that talk alot!

  2. Look, I know what happened here is wrong – but the other side of the coin is this.

    If the police go over there, and the suspect puts up any sort of resistance with the police that requires them to use force to arrest this person, then the most likely thing to happen next is people who were not party to the bus assault will be quick to pull out their phones and cry police brutality. Put that on top of the fact that even if the suspect is arrested and put to trial, its no guarantee their case will get prosecuted and its entirely possible they get put back on the street in a matter of days (or less).

    People want the police to take action (myself included) but it so often seems that as soon as they do, people are demanding that they stop and “leave that guy alone!” or “Get off of him!!” An arrest is rarely a calm interaction. The sf public in general holds such an ire towards police that as soon as they see a scuffle the side against them.

    I’m not saying the police are always right, but assuming they are always wrong leads to the current toothless and unmotivated SFPD we have now. Rant over.

    1. You really created an elaborate hypothetical scenario in your head to justify the police failing to the basic job, which is to keep the community safe using the minimum justifiable force necessary.

  3. Sfpd just doesn’t care they need to fire all sfpd personnel including the captain and major London breed for allowing it too when I used to live on 6th street in sf ca they took 14hours to respond to restraining order violation too

  4. Is it really news anymore that the SFPD can’t be bothered to do their job even when the public does their job for them?

  5. A diario ,todo el tiempo los pasajeros y más los conductores tienen que lidiar con los protegidos de la ciudad ,los que siempre hacen lo mismo agredir a medio mundo y que ahora la policía está relajada ,hasta que suceda otro robo a buiton, se van a volver a calentar .
    Mientras ,la gente nos tenemos que defender de esos protegidos de la ciudad

    1. Yep,

      Cops said during campaign that if Chesa won they’d stop making arrests to make him look bad and they’re keeping their word.

      Niners down 0-7.

      h.

  6. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked drivers to call the cops because of a dangerous situation and they reply to me that there is no point because the cops will never show up.
    Here they show up and they don’t do anything anyway. MUNI needs to have its own cops that patrol the system. I’ve been saying that for 35 years and nothing’s been done. Nothing ever gets fixed in this city.

  7. thank you so much for this important article, eleni.

    for decades, BIPOC have been persecuted by racist police in this country. instead of mass incarceration which is a manifestation of white supremacy and never works, we need to address the root causes of crime with restorative justice.

    ACAB.

  8. Let’s face it. Police officers are human. And they feel fear. Also many are just there for a paycheck. Police reports, and being put in danger, is not the first response.

  9. I’m very sorry this happened. Hope the bus driver is doing okay. May God keep all MUNI drivers and essential workers safe and protected in body and mind, everyday and everynight,

  10. This is unexceptionable I was also Assaulted on my Muni bus and police came but nothing was done to catch him..There was a video I had witnesses but they did nothing..I have PTSD now I loved my job after 20yrs I don’t think I can do it again 🥺 Prayers out to that Operator 🙏🏽🙏🏽🥺

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