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MTA Defends Bus Driver's Actions Prior to Gunshots

Officials say he was authorized to not stop for Taft High students if he believed it was unsafe.

September 13, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

MTA officials Friday defended a bus driver who refused to pick up students at a bus stop near Taft High School moments before a drive-by shooting occurred there, saying he was authorized to keep going if he felt it wasn't safe to stop.

The driver told supervisors that, as he was approaching the stop at Ventura Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue, he saw about 20 to 30 students standing in the street, pushing and shoving one another.

"He was concerned about the kids being unruly," said David Armijo, general manager of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's San Fernando Valley sector.

Buses sometimes pass up passengers at a stop, but typically only because a coach is overcrowded, transit advocates and longtime riders say.

On Tuesday afternoon, a bus carrying only a handful of passengers approached the Woodland Hills bus stop packed with dozens of teenagers. The driver drove away without letting anyone on.

Within a minute or two, witnesses said, an alleged gang member pulled up and fired shots, injuring three teenagers at the bus stop. After the shooting, some students and parents voiced anger at the driver, saying the victims might have been spared had they been allowed to board the bus.

The driver, whom MTA officials refused to identify, has been a driver with the agency for four years.

An investigation into the driver's conduct is underway. But MTA officials say policy generally permits drivers to skip stops in some situations.

"Their standard operating procedure is that, if a situation presents itself as unsafe, they are authorized not to make the stop," said Ed Scannell, an MTA spokesman. "The fact is that it's a 15-ton bus and it can't stop on a dime."

Cameras inside and outside buses give the driver a strong incentive to tell the truth because supervisors can review the images of conditions inside coaches and at bus stops, Armijo said.

MTA officials have not yet reviewed video images of the Tuesday incident because police took them, hoping the video might yield clues into events just before the shooting.

But students who were at the stop corroborated much of the driver's account. The driver did stop the bus, but several feet from the curb because people were standing in the street, students said. Students said teenagers ran up and swarmed around the bus, some pushing one another to get to the front. A few pounded on the door to open. "What was unsafe about it? All he had to do was open the door to let us in," Taft freshman Hennisie Leath said.

But Carlos Lam, a senior, thought the teenagers should have contained themselves. "They shouldn't have been crowding up to the bus. They were in the street and a car could've hit them," said Lam, adding that it was proper for the driver to leave.

Others said they sympathized with the driver, aware of the occupational hazards of steering a bus.

"I've had knives pulled on me over the years. I've had shots fired at my bus. I've had verbal threats," said Jim Byerley, an MTA driver of nearly 30 years. "If I felt there was a safety issue ... I wouldn't hesitate a second not to stop. It's a judgment call you make at the moment it happens."


Times staff writer Michael Krikorian contributed to this report.

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