Annette John-Hall: Assaulting bus drivers should bring enhanced penalty

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An officer examines a bullet hole on a SEPTA bus that was involved in a shooting near Cheltenham and Ogontz avenues, on Tuesday, September 13, 2011. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)

Think "public servant" and police officers, firefighters, and members of the military come to mind. You know, the men and women who take vows to protect and serve.

It probably never dawned on anyone to think of Desmond Jones as a public servant. He's only a bus driver - one of 2,700 SEPTA operators who keep Philadelphians moving.

At least one million riders a day depend on Jones. He's the one who takes your child to school. Your mother to work. Senior citizens to their doctor appointments.

A true public servant, for sure. But lately, Jones and his colleagues have become something else.

Sitting ducks.

Targets for the thugs who have declared open season on drivers, proving once again that total disregard for human life doesn't prevent anyone from owning a gun in Philadelphia.

Operators routinely get orally abused, spit on, threatened - and those are the offenses that go unreported. But the number of reported violent incidents has more than doubled, from 20 to 50.

And with the brazen shootings that have occurred recently, it's a miracle that no one has gotten killed.

Chilling to think that's what it may take before State Sen. Christine Tartaglione's bill - which would make an assault on a SEPTA operator a second-degree felony - sees the light of day.

Which was why Mayor Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, Transit Workers Union 234 president John Johnson, and some of the assaulted operators came together last week at SEPTA's depot in South Philly to raise awareness about Tartaglione's legislation, first introduced seven years ago, that seeks to root out a growing strand of violence that stands to hurt a lot more people than only bus drivers.

 

Three gun assaults

You would think that three gun assaults of SEPTA operators within the last four months would get somebody's attention in Harrisburg.

It broke my heart to see the driver who showed up at the news conference Friday with her slinged arm in a cast - the same arm she used to protect herself from a gunman's bullets.

The driver had completed her shift on Route 79 in South Philly on a rainy night this month when the assailant asked to get on. After she refused, he pulled out a gun and shot her.

"She shielded her face from the possibility of being shot in the head," Johnson said. "She had the presence of mind to drive herself to the hospital."

Still traumatized two weeks later, the driver burst into tears as Johnson recounted her brush with death. Afterward, Nutter sought her out to comfort her. Unable to drive, the operator is out on leave.

But Jones is back on the job, having survived what has to be one of the most horrific incidents ever involving a SEPTA driver.

By now, you've probably seen the video - the one in which two assailants, armed with a handgun and an assault weapon, shoot through the middle door of Jones' bus as his passengers duck for cover.

The June attack in North Philly was labeled a retaliatory shooting, triggered by a young mother seeking to get revenge on a fellow passenger who chastised her about spanking her toddler. She called ahead to set up the hit.

But what it did was turn the Route 47 bus into a war zone. And it forced Jones, 32, to rely on instincts he had honed in the Army.

As his passengers cowered almost on top of him near the front door of the bus, he took off.

"I didn't have time to think," Jones, of South Philly, said. "Once I had a realization of what was going on, I closed the door as soon as I could and left."

Floored it down one-way streets to Temple University Hospital with his 10 shocked passengers, who miraculously were unharmed.

You probably won't find Jones' actions in the company manual, but he did what any hero would do.

SEPTA operators may be public servants, but they don't set out to become heroes.

And they sure don't want to end up as dead heroes.

 


Annette John-Hall:

To see the mayhem on SEPTA's Route 47 bus, go to

www.philly.com/busshooting


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh.