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.’”