After a driver's murder, move fast to fix public buses

Thomas Dunn was murdered driving a bus route in Tampa, and already the county next door is acting to protect drivers. Sue Carlton says Hillsborough also needs to do all it can.
After the shocking murder of Hillsborough bus driver Thomas Dunn on his regular route, counties need to act now to protect employees. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
After the shocking murder of Hillsborough bus driver Thomas Dunn on his regular route, counties need to act now to protect employees. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published June 11

The murder didn't happen in Pinellas County. But already, officials there are moving forward to better protect employees who make a living driving public buses.

The horrific crime just across the bay last month — on a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus rolling along Tampa's Nebraska Avenue on a Saturday afternoon — still makes zero sense. There was no dispute between the driver and passenger over a fare, no clash, no ugly exchange. The last words between them, captured in a recording later recounted by a police detective, went like this:

Passenger Justin McGriff made his way to the front of the bus and stood slightly behind the driver, 46-year-old Thomas Dunn. Tom, people called him.

"God bless you," McGriff said, and then repeated himself when Dunn didn't quite catch it.

"Thank you. Good bless you, too," Dunn replied politely, kindly even, and then the passenger lunged forward and cut his throat.

Security surveillance images from the bus make it clear that the driver, an Air Force veteran and father, never saw it coming. But it bears repeating that Dunn, who asked for this particular route through the gritty heart of the city, managed to steer his bus and passengers to safety even as he was dying.

Yes, this is an extreme and uncommon case of what can happen when you drive a bus for a living. But as the Tampa Bay Times' Caitlin Johnston reported, since 2008, nearly 2,000 bus drivers across America went to the hospital after being assaulted.

Following the murder of one of their own, more than a dozen local drivers came to a Hillsborough transit meeting last week and spoke of being attacked verbally and physically. Fellow drivers from Pinellas were there, too, a show of solidarity.

"I always was so proud to work here," said a woman who had been hit and repeatedly spit on. "But now I am afraid."

Who wouldn't be?

Pinellas County responded quickly last week, planning a $1 million investment in tempered-glass partitions to separate drivers from passengers in its 210 buses by the fall, subject to approval later this month. Pinellas transit authority CEO Brad Miller said they needed to "move at lightning speed."

Hillsborough has not yet determined what security will be added to its 180-bus fleet. A committee is expected to make recommendations next month. That additional safety can't come soon enough.

This is not a knee-jerk reaction to a horrific event. It's not throwing money at a problem so people will stop talking about it. Given what it turns out bus drivers routinely endure, it just makes sense.

Drivers have asked for assurances that panic buttons in the buses work (which should have been a given.) They want video cameras moved to the front of the bus. And clear, protective barriers between passengers and themselves. And who would know better than the ones behind the wheel?

"Whatever it takes," Hillsborough transit authority chairman Les Miller told staff at last week's meeting, and officials need to make good on this. The legacy of a man who died just doing his job deserves at least that.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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