While SEPTA passengers worry about crime on the public transit system, SEPTA employees face ongoing dangers.

Otis Barnes, who’s been a SEPTA bus driver for nearly three decades, has been assaulted by a violent passenger twice – first on June 19 and again on Nov. 30, 2023. Dangerous passengers have also attacked some of his coworkers.

“There was a detour that day in June, and this passenger didn’t like it,” Barnes said. “He was making terroristic threats. He spit on me and another co-worker who was there. It wasn’t the first time he caused problems on the route. He never pays the fare, by the way, which is common in these incidents. I told the Control Center I couldn’t pick him up anymore and that this person was an ongoing problem. After the spitting incident, (he) got physical.”

According to Barnes, the same passenger spat on Barnes again on Nov. 30 and ran off the vehicle.

“He ran off the bus, and I went after him,” said Barnes. “I threw some punches. He got back on the bus and got physical with a passenger, a father who had his child with him. This father overpowered him. To my knowledge, this man who harasses my passengers has never been arrested. He still tries to get on the bus but I won’t let him onboard. I see him at least once a week.

“I know co-workers who have been physically assaulted,” said Barnes. “One was punched in the face. Why? Because he was driving too slow. The second was punched for not stopping at a discontinued stop. I’ve been a driver for 29 years, and it hasn’t always been like this. It’s escalating. These violent passengers can say or do whatever they want because they know there are no serious consequences. Operators have always been threatened, but now it’s not just a threat.”

On Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, a passenger shot and killed bus operator Bernard Gribben, 48. He was shot six times in the chest and abdomen allegedly by Zhontay Capers, 21. Police charged Capers with murder and related offenses.

“I never thought something like that could happen,” said Barnes. “His death affected a lot of my co-workers. Some just break down and cry over it. You see, the threats aren’t just threats anymore. These violent passengers are saying, You can get what your colleague got’– meaning what happened to Bernard.

“Will this new law, Act 40, make a difference? I think so, especially if it’s advertised on vehicles and station stops,” he added. “People have to know there are serious consequences for their actions, and right now, many of them don’t think that there are.”

In December 2023, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed Act 40 into law. The bipartisan legislation is meant to address what some lawmakers see as District Attorney Larry Krasner’s “systemic record of failing to prosecute assaults on victims.” The law would divert prosecution of some criminal cases on SEPTA vehicles, and transit stops to a special prosecutor. However, so far, Attorney General Michelle Henry has not appointed a special prosecutor, and Krasner opposes the new law.

“This dereliction of duty has cast a negative light on Philadelphia and the commonwealth, which has significantly impacted safety and ridership,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria) when the Senate approved the bill. “The working families, students, and visitors of Philadelphia are in dire need of prosecutorial solutions, and my legislation will help restore law and order on SEPTA’s buses, trolleys, trains, and stations.”

On January 11, Krasner filed a lawsuit against the state attorney general to block implementation of the law, calling it “an unprecedented assault on a locally elected official’s authority and the rights of voters” in an official statement.  

Yet in all of the abuse by Krasner and supporters on Act 40, there was not one mention of those victimized by violent crime while riding or waiting for buses, trolleys, or trains.

It wasn’t until a March 4 shooting at the Route 22 bus stop where a 17-year-old was killed and four people were wounded, including two other teens, that Krasner finally said anything about the victims. Instead, when interviewed by Lauren Mayk on NBC10’s Battleground Politics, he repeatedly referred to it as the erasure of votes and a war on democracy. He repeatedly tried to make it a racial issue. 

However, a recent string of deadly incidents of SEPTA riders, many of them juveniles, is spurring city leaders to take much-needed action. But will this result in aggressive policies and prosecution against violent criminals?

“Krasner’s argument that the new law is disenfranchising voters and trying to circumvent his authority is specious at best,” said former Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams. “The focus should be on the victims of violent crime. The lawmakers in Harrisburg are trying to get around a district attorney who is not prosecuting,” Williams said. “Someone has to stand up for the victims. Members of the General Assembly are trying to ensure riders and employees are safe. It is the certainty of accountability that deters criminals.”

In an interview with Mayk, Shapiro said the new law doesn’t strip Krasner of prosecutorial powers or disenfranchise Philadelphia voters.

“It’s concurrent jurisdiction, something that already exists. We are not taking away power. We are adding law enforcement resources,” said Shapiro.

The recent violence includes a  Feb. 26 attack on a man by a violent criminal known to law enforcement on the 8th and Market Street subway platforms. The perpetrator, now under arrest again, was out on bail for attempted murder.

On March 6, eight juveniles were wounded by gunfire at the Rising Sun and Cottman Avenues bus stop. One victim, a 16-year-old boy, was shot nine times. The next day, a 37-year-old man was shot and killed on the Route 79 bus.

For men have been arrested for the March 6 shooting. An arrest was also made in the March 7 shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old. Investigators say the two shootings might be connected.

Former assistant district attorney Carlos Vega said Act 40 critics ignore the fact that a Democratic governor signed the new law.

“Krasner and the rest of them can say what they want about it being an attack on democracy. But the fact that the bill passed with bipartisan support is a clear example of democracy at work,” he said. “It was debated in Harrisburg. There were hearings. Republicans, as well as Democrats, voted for it. Act 40 was a bipartisan push that a democratic governor signed off on. Violent crime is skyrocketing because of Krasner. SEPTA riders don’t have the option of working from home. This law is an additional safeguard for prosecuting violent criminals and protecting riders and SEPTA employees. It’s a deterrence. Krasner is in his second term. He sees the statistics; he knows what’s happening. But he doesn’t care.”

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