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North Richmond bus line gets police escort

on February 24, 2011

A growing series of violent incidents on buses in North Richmond has forced authorities to respond with a measure unheard of outside of war zones: Following a recent shooting in which a bullet passed through a bus’ rear windshield, all buses on AC Transit’s 376 line are now accompanied by a police escort as they pass through North Richmond.

The February 9 shooting, which occurred at Third Street and Grove Avenue in North Richmond, left one passenger with injuries from flying glass. Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jimmy Lee said no arrests have been made in the case. It was the fifth act of violence on an AC Transit bus in the Richmond area since January 5, when two men boarded a bus and beat a passenger severely enough to hospitalize him. This year’s rate of violent acts is significantly higher than in the past; in 2010, according to an Amalgamated Transit Union spokesperson, only ten acts of violence were reported on buses in the course of the whole year. Authorities are still searching for an explanation for the recent spike in bus-related violence.

Starting on February 10, each bus on the 376 line, an evening-only route, has been followed by a Contra Costa County Sheriff’s deputy in a marked police car as it passes through North Richmond between the hours of 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. The route’s daytime equivalent, the 76, has not been given an escort.

Although the 376 runs on a 15-mile loop from Richmond’s BART station to the town of Pinole, the sheriff’s deputies are only escorting the buses along the one-mile stretch that passes through North Richmond, from the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to Market Avenue and Rumrill Boulevard.

The escort is being provided under a longstanding contract between AC Transit and the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office to provide security along the transit agency’s bus routes, and will come at no extra cost to AC Transit. (The agency has a similar contract with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office). Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jimmy Lee said that of the county’s more than 600 sheriff’s deputies, seven are assigned to AC Transit throughout the county. He also noted that one full-time “resident deputy” operates exclusively in North Richmond. Lee said that because the escort service overlapped with the deputies’ regular patrols, the escort had “no impact” on the office’s coverage of its jurisdiction.

Despite its name, North Richmond is not a part of the surrounding City of Richmond, and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Richmond Police Department. As an unincorporated area, all of North Richmond’s law enforcement service is provided by the county sheriff’s office.

Of AC Transit’s 235,000 weekday passengers, only about 400 ride the 376 line. In spite of the violence that has recently plagued the route, few appear to be calling for its closure, largely because no other form of public transit serves the area. “It’s not one of our most heavily used routes,” said AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson, “but for those who need the service, it’s a very critical route.”

Johnson stressed that the violence afflicting the 376 line is not unique to buses. “We face the same challenges as everyone else,” including violence, Johnson said. “Some of that violence finds its way onto our buses.”

Claudia Hudson, International Representative and former president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192, the union that represents AC Transit’s drivers, said that her union has been calling for increased safety measures for several years. She called the police escort “a band-aid on the situation.” Hudson said that high-crime zones like North Richmond won’t be safe for bus drivers or passengers until AC Transit allocates funds to reserve at least three additional sheriff’s deputies, expands its surveillance camera installation to the agency’s entire fleet, and takes steps to “educate the public” about the consequences of breaking the law.

Hudson said “quite a few” drivers in her union have refused to work the 376 line, though she declined to specify how many. “We’ve got drivers who are afraid to complain, for fear of their jobs,” Hudson said. “If I was driving, I would not go.” Of AC Transit’s 1,600 bus drivers—1,000 of whom are members of Local 192—Hudson said it takes four to staff the 76 and 376 lines over a given day.

Hudson pointed out that the nature of public transit exposes drivers to significant risk. Every day, she said, “We pick up people who we do not know.”

And if one becomes violent? Hudson said: “We’re just sitting ducks.”

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