Monday, October 23, 2017

Another Driver Pushed Under the Bus

Journalism as originally intended is mostly dead, and it pains me as a former journalist. Sure, there are a few periodicals remaining which adhere to the standards I was taught. In these days of corporate media ownership however, many have devolved into opinion pits which pretend to report true news while leading their readers down a chosen ideological path.

Perhaps I still am a journalist, because I try to speak to truth while considering different angles of a story. Although I also have strong opinions on matters, they are mostly fact-based, flavored with my fiery emotions. This is a blog, after all. I make no claim of grandeur. It's time now to utilize both facts and opinion, to balance a grossly unfair, one-sided character assassination on one of our Portland brothers.

Portland operators recall how Jeff Roberts was portrayed on the news in August as a phone-tossing, finger-flipping transit terrorist by our over-zealous unprofessional local news media. When I first viewed the report (See KGW news story here), I was struck by the lack of professional restraint by the media. First, before filing a journalistic report, it's customary to get both sides of a story. Otherwise, it's simply an unsubstantiated complaint. Until both sides could be contacted, the "news" station" never should have aired this flimsy report.

KGW's news segment is prefaced by the anchor's statement, "An Estacada man took this picture (shot of Roberts in operator seat, smiling, with extended middle fingers blurred) of what appears to be a driver giving him the finger yesterday (said in an exaggerated disapproving tone of voice)." A moment later, she says "he says the driver swore at him, and threatened him. Man says, he didn't do anything wrong." Her stern tone insinuates the following was a true story, fully vetted and therefore immediately putting the onus on the bus operator. Talk about a slant, this ploy is commonly used today.

"You could call it the worst bus ride Powell's ever had," the reporter states. Wow, really? Was Powell hurt or maimed during this "ordeal?" No. He arrived safely at his destination, as do approximately 330,000 riders daily. Mr. Innocence And Light claims he simply tried to exit the rear door when "the driver...freaked...out," according to the report. His actions aren't ever questioned in this version. Perhaps he had guilty feelings when he spoke to Fox 12 news, because Powell admitted (See Fox 12 account) he called the driver names because "I was angry too, just like he was."

The KGW account differs, as the reporter stated "Powell says he didn't do anything to provoke the driver." This inconsistency only lends credence to the fact that many people who don't get their way become abusive, threatening to file a false report. Mr. Roberts says that Powell demanded his name and badge number. "He continued to demand this information and that he was going to have me fired," Roberts said. This is a form of abuse in that Powell seemed to feel entitled to have our brother's personal information. After the incident, Powell splashed photos of Roberts and the bus on his FaceBook page, without providing vital facts that described his escalation of what should have never been an incident to begin with. By the time the media picked it up, Mr. Roberts' integrity had been severely impugned. Social media tends to accuse and convict without having all the facts.

This type of incident is something people normally report to our "Customer Service" line. Complaints are then investigated by our management to establish credibility. Without the driver's side of the story, a complaint-driven bloodthirsty public is left to believe our brother guilty. Even though the reporter and our agency carefully inserted "allegedly" before the passenger's charges, the news account is heavily-slanted toward the complainant. Powell pulls at the public's heartstrings, saying his child was afraid of his father riding a bus again. And there you have the big, bad bully bus driver myth. I hear things like this all the time, but most of them are so wild they are easily dismissed. (If it sounds too nuts to be true, it usually is.) And in this case, the story became a gross manipulation of the facts which has yet to be corrected by either our transit agency or the media outlets which broadcast it.

Now, let's turn to our brother. He released a statement this week, telling his side of the ordeal. Ordinarily, this could be reduced to a "he said, he stated" argument. However, our buses have cameras and microphones inside and out. Knowing any false statements would be contradicted by real-time video evidence (something his accuser apparently lacks), Mr. Roberts' story is therefore the more credible one.

In fairness to both parties, I'll provide statements made by both the accuser and his victim. (There, I used a media stunt to sway opinion. Didya catch that? Hey... fair is fair in love and war.) This will illuminate what operators deal with daily, while I explain some important details. This way you can decide whose account merits belief. 

First, let's look at KGW's story (given the Whiny Boy Award for Entitlement, "Man says driver harassed him"). In this account, our heralded "victim," Mr. Josh Powell, says he simply tried to exit the bus via the back door. He says our operator yelled "You fucking idiots, you need to wait." Wow. That instantly raised my bullshit radar. Just what did Powell do to elicit such an explosive response? A bus operator with nearly two decades of experience doesn't respond in this fashion.

Roberts reports that as he rolled toward the final stop on his run to Estacada, Powell and Company attempted to push open the back door before the bus came to a stop and he could activate the door handle. Anyone who regularly rides a bus knows there are signs instructing passengers on the proper procedure regarding disembarking via the rear door. You wait until the green light over the door is illuminated, then you push it open. These doors have a safety device which renders them inoperable if someone attempts to open them before the green light is on. If you push on the door before the switch is activated, they will lock up. It takes the operator getting out of his seat to fix the problem before they will open again. According to Mr. Roberts, Powell began yelling "BACK DOOR! BACK DOOR!" (This is a tired-but-true antic many unruly riders employ, mostly out of ignorance. Nobody tends to read signs instructing riders on proper procedures and Passenger Code of Conduct.)

Powell feigned innocence to the reporter, as his response was: "Can you pop the door?" I have never heard someone put it that way. Occasionally, an operator will forget to activate the back door, and the common response is "Back door, please." This is usually asked by someone who has noticed the green light isn't illuminated. The operator then clicks the handle and the door can be opened.

Here's where it got a bit testy. Powell claims our operator cursed him and told him to exit the front. The unidentified passenger threatened to hit Roberts, who says that Powell demanded his name and badge number, saying "he was going to have me fired." When Powell exited, Roberts did the customary end-of-the-line walk through looking for lost items. He says Powell got back on the bus before he could return to the operator's seat, and once again demanded his name and badge number. (Sorry folks, we don't provide that information.) Roberts refused, and at the limit of his patience, told Powell to "get the fuck off my bus." Cursing Roberts, Powell refused to exit. Roberts says Powell threatened to accuse him of assault, but Roberts pointed out the several cameras on the bus and encouraged him to do so.

Powell stated Roberts called him a "punk" and "ugly." Roberts says Powell called him a "fucking pig." Roberts admits part of Powell's statement is true. "He said I was a 'pig' several times, but I told him at least I'm not ugly and I can always lose weight." 

As Roberts walked back to the front of his bus, he noticed Powell had a "spit ball" on his tongue. At this point, Roberts says he told Powell that if he spit on him, he'd punch him. Roberts said "I even acted like I was going to (punch him) and started laughing at him as I moved past him and got in the driver's seat."

Finally, Powell exited the bus. Again. He stepped off the curb and began snapping photos of the bus with his phone. At this point, Roberts says he "used poor judgment and I gave him a big smile with two birds flying high. He then stepped to the driver's window to continue taking pictures." At this point, Roberts says Powell shoved his phone close to the driver's face, who admits he then "grabbed it and tossed it over his head." Powell claims Roberts threw it across the street (a distance of about 15 yards, highly improbable given Roberts' seated position makes such a toss unlikely at best). Roberts says he simply tossed the phone over Powell's head. Powell showed the media his phone, which had a damaged screen. 

Powell says his wife and son witnessed the incident, but Roberts says that "at no point was his wife or child there." Powell offers no photographic evidence of this claim, or any video either.

Okay, so we have a rude bus passenger who splashes his claim and photos on FaceBook which goes viral, and is quickly interviewed by KGW and FOX 12. The "news" goes directly from Powell to the transit agency's disclaimer stating it does not "condone aggressive behavior or the destruction of property." At least this is true. However, Powell's behavior is apparently okie-dokie; it's never questioned. It insinuates that an angelic young father was abused by a nasty bus operator, which is unsubstantiated dirty laundry. 

"I would at least like to get an apology," Powell whines in the KGW interview. "You don't treat people with disrespect, you know," he says. I guess his treatment of the operator and refusal to take any responsibility doesn't warrant an apology. If the incident had played out exactly like he described, maybe he'd deserve one. But it's all too clear who's telling the truth here. Roberts acknowledges his own mistakes during the incident, yet Powell tramples the facts as if he's an angelic cherub being chased by a bloodthirsty demon. He offers no evidence, and the "journalist" makes no attempt at impartiality.

The public perception of us is constantly skewed to the negative by "news" reports such as this one. Our transit agency did not step in and stand up for its employee, asking that judgment be withheld until they had finished their investigation. Honesty in what passes for "news" doesn't sell advertising. Sensational reporting however, sells bundles. 

The report simply states management's bland corporate disclaimer about not condoning what Roberts was accused of. Instead of affirming the American ideal that we're considered innocent until proven guilty, transit officials failed once again to support its front line workers. The statement's tone tends to lead one to believe the allegations. Although management's behavior is baffling, we've become accustomed to it throwing us under the buses we drive.

Roberts has been with us 18 years, and all who know him describe him as a deeply caring, affectionate man. You can't operate in transit that long by being an asshole. He was suspended for four weeks while management considered his case. Roberts meanwhile, decided he enjoyed not being verbally assaulted while away from the job. After a long and safe career driving his fellow residents, he decided enough was enough.

"After a year of thought and soul searching," he said in a statement he released this week, "I retired. I did not take this decision lightly. I felt like I could no longer work for a company that did nothing to curb assaults on its employees." He continued, saying he also couldn't work for an agency "that doesn't back its employees when it comes to informing the passengers of the rules."

In the end, Roberts said he couldn't in good conscience work for an agency that gives more credence to passengers' false accounts than to the professionals who provide millions of safe travel miles every year.

"I may not have used my best judgment on some of the things I did, but he would not go away," Roberts said. "Yes, I should have called Dispatch sooner but by the time that I could, I was angry and not thinking about that. The only thing I was thinking about was to get away from this fool."

In suspending him, management rebuked Roberts for breaking several of its unrealistic policies. In the heat of the moment, as I can readily attest to, our ability to "remain calm and de-escalate" is severely limited. The body's physiological responses are impossible to ignore, and our body prepares to fight or retreat when threatened. Roberts felt he was about to be spit upon, a grotesquely intense insult. The response is likely to be physical. Given Powell's penchant for obscenity (something he conveniently left out of his account), his actions were threatening to Roberts. 

Instead of a mild rebuke for a phone toss while being harassed, our agency allowed this professional to leave. It didn't back him up, encourage him to remain, or air his rebuttal with audio and camera evidence. His integrity was publicly thrashed, yet not restored. It's sadly the status quo these days. There would be no follow-up or attempt to set the record straight.

"The fire in the Gorge then took over for most stories, including mine," Roberts told me. Because of the lack of Roberts side being told, all the public will remember is that Roberts ended up looking like the 'bad guy.'

We're human beings, prone to making mistakes. It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback a driver's actions when you weren't there, or if you've never encountered the amount of abuse we endure every day. If someone pushed a phone into your face, could you honestly say you wouldn't react the same way Roberts did? He did the honorable thing by admitting his mistakes, though. Powell obliterated the truth and the media bought his story like it was a blue-light special.

Instead of apologizing to Powell as he asked for, he should apologize to Roberts, as should the media and our transit agency. Mistakes were made by the operator, to be sure. In the heat of the moment, only those with extreme special training and not suffering from the fatigue associated with this job could avoid a confrontation at that time. Roberts was harassed and refused to pander to a rude passenger, and was disciplined for not bowing down taking the abuse.

With our General Manager's looming retirement, his replacement will likely be even more anti-front line worker. Instead of following this contentious managerial path, I encourage the Board of Directors to look within for his replacement. Many transit operators usually have years of experience in the public sector which qualify them for the position. It's time we have a leader running our agency who has done the job, and therefore has empathy for us. Otherwise, our retiring GM will take just take his golden nest egg and we'll remain to suffer the soulless, straw-filled legacy left behind.


  1. This is happening everywhere. How are we going to get this to stop with management not supporting their drivers. We receive no respect understanding and when one mistake is made by the driver its blown up out of context like the biggest crime anyone could have done??? When are we going to be treated like human beings! Not like a fictional situation written in a book with humanity taken out of it...

  2. The names change, the cities change, and the countries change. What remains constant is the condescending, petty, harassment by those passengers who somehow think that the operator is unworthy of being treated as an equal, let alone as an authority in transit procedure. Constant also, is the response of management, who has swallowed the mantra of,"the customer is always right."
    The customer is usually wrong;
    would that managers realise this and act accordingly.
    The transit experience would improve immensely for employees, other riders, and managers.

  3. It's time for the Union to get active on this subject and come up with a program that has merit to resolve issues like this. In the end, maybe a disruption of entire service by Strike is needed, even if there is a contract clause about no Strike. IF all left the job for a few days,maybe management would come up with a program to alleviate these unruly passengers from causing the harms they create. As it fits now, neither side is winning anything but more abuse to fire a professional driver, leaving new hires as the only brand left to service the public and creating safety issues due to their inexperience.