News / Winnipeg

Winnipeg Transit union boss calls for 'dedicated' bus police following fatal stabbing

President John Callahan lamented Wednesday that he’s brought up the safety issue “time and time again.”

Police search for evidence at the scene of a fatal stabbing of a bus driver at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Tuesday, February 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Police search for evidence at the scene of a fatal stabbing of a bus driver at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Tuesday, February 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The mayor said it, the police chief said it, and the president of the transit union agrees: “There’s a lot more that could be done” to improve safety on Winnipeg Transit buses.

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1505 President John Callahan lamented Wednesday that he’s brought up the safety issue “time and time again.”

He said he hits on familiar points “any time there’s an assault,” but this week’s fatal stabbing of a city bus driver—the first time an operator has been murdered on the job—is something else entirely.

It was a “tragedy,” Callahan says. He doesn’t want it to be a wake-up call, but “it is.”

Brian Kyle Thomas, 22, has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of 58-year-old bus driver Irvine Fraser.

Callahan said he’s glad to have the city and police—two critical stakeholders—at the table and to help him usher in safety changes.

Some of those changes will require ongoing co-operation, planning, and resources, but he believes there are “common sense" ways to prevent this from happening again.

“We want to look at quick fixes (such as) just implementing some education for the public, to the ridership,” Callahan said. 

Although Tuesday morning’s assault was obviously very severe, Callahan said many disputes unfold similarly, and “a lot of the assaults are the result of poor communication or not understanding a policy.”

“It starts as a simple verbal dispute but can quickly escalate into a physical altercation,” he said.

Whether it’s exiting a bus at the end of the line, or waiting for the third bus in a row of backlogged buses to pull up to the stop before boarding, Callahan said transit policies are either not well known or they’re “very unclear.”

“We’ve stressed this time and time again to Winnipeg Transit, they need to educate the riding public better on policies,” he said, adding that the customer code of conduct should be both better disseminated and better enforced.

In addition to that quick fix, Callahan said there could be service adjustments or procedural changes that don’t leave operators alone to deal with unruly passengers.

“These buses terminating service in outlying areas where it’s isolated has to change,” he said. “Instead of finishing there, maybe finish it in a central location downtown… maybe there’s a hub, somewhere with some more support.”

Buses are equipped with cameras, emergency buttons that connect drivers to 911 instantly, and, since 61 driver assaults in 2015 sparked a safety discussion, cadets, uniformed or undercover police officers.

Callahan said there have been nearly three dozen reports of plain-clothed officers “intervening in situations that were escalating since that (initiative) was implemented.”

He thinks better communicating to the public that these officers are out there could help, but so could increasing the frequency of the enforcement by hiring “some dedicated transit police officers.”

“We think there’s a way to do that without breaking the bank,” Callahan said, adding the union plans to discuss that idea and others with the city and cops to make changes.

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