Thursday, December 08, 2011

Ottawa: Union & Transpo Agree on Bus Cameras

Ottawa's transit commission and its biggest transit union have a testy relationship, but they agree on one thing: It's probably time to install security cameras on OC Transpo buses.

"They are a great tool for safety for the drivers as well as the passengers," said Mike Aldrich, vice-president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279. "We've got to get on with it."

Councillor Diane Deans, who chairs the city's transit commission, is only a little more cautious.

"We'd have to consult the workforce and we'd have to do a cost-benefit analysis," she said.

The last time the city considered the idea, in 2008, the union was concerned about Big Brother-type monitoring of bus operators and the city was worried about the cost, Deans said. Camera technology has plunged in price, she said, and, if the union is on board, there seem to be no big obstacles left.

Deans has asked OC Transpo to review a bylaw that forbids cameras on its vehicles and property unless Transpo general manager Alain Mercier has given written approval or the cameras are for "personal use" since the first of several recent incidents in which riders recorded or reported ugly confrontations between drivers and passengers. She thinks the possibility of security cameras is included in that review.

Aldrich said the union would still want an agreement written into its contract with the city saying that security cameras would only be used to investigate specific incidents where there were allegations of criminality or health and safety violations.

When a passenger recorded about a minute's worth of a driver on a late-night No. 96 swearing at and threatening a rider who'd been annoying him, Aldrich said, the public reaction was volcanic. "Hang him, fire him, take his family out and stone them," Aldrich said.

"But then you learn more about it and you find out that, hey, maybe terminating him isn't the right thing to do."

A city camera would have recorded before, during and after the incident and would have given a much more complete perspective.

Cameras would be useful for dealing with claims from people who say they have been hurt by abrupt braking or jackrabbit starts and for fights between passengers, Aldrich said.

Sometimes people in domestic disputes board buses as "places of refuge," he said, and abusive partners follow them on and keep an argument going. A deadly stabbing on the No. 118 in 2006 would have been easier to solve. A teenager who allegedly punched a different driver on a No. 96 on Wednesday after a fare dispute would probably have been arrested by now.

Ottawa taxis have cameras in them for exactly this reason, though the recordings can be downloaded only by the police for criminal investigations.

After Toronto installed security cameras on its buses, Aldrich said, assaults on drivers plunged. Even if the assaults can't be prevented, perpetrators can be caught quickly, he said, citing the case of Edmonton transit driver Tom Bregg, who was sucker-punched, knocked out, dragged off his bus and stomped into a coma in 2009 by a vicious drunk who has since been ruled a dangerous offender.

"They caught that guy an hour and a half later because they had the footage," Aldrich said. The Bregg case was behind a private member's bill in the House of Commons from Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber that would have stiffened penalties for people who assaulted transit workers. Aldrich and Deans back the idea, but Rathgeber's bill died when the last election was called.

"You don't answer your door and punch a postal worker in the fact because he's 10 minutes late with your mail," Aldrich said. "The law would treat you harshly for that. Should be the same with transit operators."

Deans said this was an opportunity for a tough-on-crime Conservative government to take action on a real problem. Similar requests have come from Winnipeg and Vancouver after attacks on drivers in those cities, she said. "I'd be encouraging the federal government to strengthen the Criminal Code when it comes to drivers," she said.