City moving toward Transit security force: mayor

Winnipeg’s mayor is promising to establish a Transit security force within months as concerns over violence on its buses and along its routes skyrocket.

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Winnipeg’s mayor is promising to establish a Transit security force within months as concerns over violence on its buses and along its routes skyrocket.

Mayor Scott Gillingham said he’s actively working on the issue (one of his campaign platform planks last fall), adding he recently met with the union that represents Winnipeg Transit drivers.

“I can tell you actively, behind the scenes, we’re working on the establishment of a Transit security team,” Gillingham told reporters Thursday at city hall.

“The details are yet to be determined, but the bottom line is we need to ensure that Transit is a safe space for everyone who rides the bus and, certainly, those who work on the bus.”

He suggested some funding slated for security may be in the upcoming city budget.

The pledge comes as recent violence shows there hasn’t been enough done to improve bus safety in recent years, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 president Chris Scott told the Free Press.

“Whether it falls in the lap of the department or the city or higher up from that is really yet to be determined,” he said Thursday.

The union is advocating for increased security throughout its system, whether it’s in the form of inspectors with the power to detain people or a police presence.

So far this year, 18 bus drivers have reported on-the-job assaults, Scott said.

“The bottom line is we need to ensure that Transit is a safe space for everyone who rides the bus and, certainly, those who work on the bus.”–Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham

Union numbers show physical and verbal assaults against Transit workers have increased in recent years from 86 in 2020, to 88 in 2021, to 130 last year.

“That ranges from being yelled at or having racial slurs thrown at you, all the way up to physical assault,” Scott said.

Among recent events, on Tuesday, police arrested a woman accused of assaulting a bus driver and a teen passenger — and another woman who stepped in to fight the first unruly passenger. On Thursday, a woman waiting at a bus stop was reportedly the victim of an attempted kidnapping when a van approached and a man attempted to pull her inside, police said in a news release. She managed to flee and was not injured.

In the past month, a father and his 10-year-old son were assaulted on a bus and a male passenger had to fend off a machete attack.

Safety measures Transit has put in place in recent years, including increased numbers of inspectors, shields around driver seats, and video/audio surveillance, have helped to a degree, but are not enough, Scott said.

There are ongoing plans to explore extending the shields’ coverage.

Transit spokeswoman Megan Benedictson (who said she couldn’t accommodate an interview with any Transit executive Thursday) noted the city has spent $9.6 million on safety initiatives since 2017 that have either been put in place or are being implemented

That includes beefed-up training for drivers and inspectors, who were kitted with body armour in 2019, as well as the hiring of more inspectors.

The city’s transit advisory committee — which includes council members, Transit executives, unions, the city’s Indigenous relations division, police and bus drivers — is looking at strategies for a long-term security plan, Benedictson said.

Asked whether Winnipeg Transit would sit on a proposed national task force of unions, governments and transit providers (which the ATU national arm called for this week), Benedictson said the service often looks at experiences and initiatives elsewhere when coming up with solutions.

“We participate in discussions with our counterparts at regional and national levels, including through our involvement in the Canadian Urban Transit Association,” she said.

“We recognize there is great value in collaboration, and that we are always interested in hearing about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to investing in safe transit.”

Waiting at a stop outside Polo Park mall Thursday afternoon to catch his ride home from work, 22-year-old grocery shop butcher Milen Medwai said he’s been riding the bus regularly since he was a child.

“I feel relatively safe,” Medwai said.

However, he added, one evening about two years ago, he stepped in to help an older woman whose purse had been snatched and came away with his jacket torn up and a punch in the face.

“I think it depends on the route… and if anything, it will be later at night,” he said of the potential for violence on buses.

Medwai said he would be supportive of increased security but thinks any onboard guards or police officers ought to be in plain clothes.

The provincial government should do more to address possible underlying causes of the increase in assaults: addictions, mental health and a lack of housing, Scott said.

“We need to empower people to get up and get better. When you’re in those states, it’s difficult to do that on your own, and there are a lot of great souls out there that want to do that, to help people up,” the union leader said. “I think that will go a long way to helping with the violence on the system.”

Without broadly addressing the issue of safety the transit system will continue to suffer, he said.

“Without the ridership, we have no service, we have no jobs, they cut service, so those that depend on it are now inconvenienced as a result,” Scott said.

“That doesn’t help the city, that doesn’t help the individuals (who use the bus).”

— with files from Joyanne Pursaga

Twitter: @erik_pindera

Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.

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