Charlotte bus operators claim unsafe environment. The data agrees

CATS CEO John Lewis claims “no incidents” for months but records say otherwise
Charlotte’s bus system has seen a level of safety and security incidents that ranks among the highest in the country, city and federal data shows.
Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 6:27 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte’s bus system has seen a level of safety and security incidents that ranks among the highest in the country, city and federal data shows.

WBTV began requesting data and individual incident reports after an interview with CATS CEO John Lewis in late July, where he claimed CATS has “operated several million miles without incident.”

Lewis’ claim came as bus operators continued voicing concerns about their safety and the safety of riders waiting at transit centers and riding the bus.

CATS operators WBTV interviewed refuted Lewis’ claim and said that safety concerns for them are very real every day.

Charlotte’s bus system has seen a level of safety and security incidents that ranks among the highest in the country, city and federal data shows.

“He forgot that a passenger was boarding my bus and dropped a gun early in the morning?” one operator told WBTV.

In addition to disproving the claim made by Lewis, the data also raise questions about whether CATS is properly reporting security incidents to the federal agency that tracks the information and provides local funding.

Security events and crime at the Charlotte Transit Center are a constant according to operators and data obtained by WBTV back up the bleak picture they paint.

“You have drugs, prostitution,” an operator told WBTV.

“On any given day, honestly, for any drug users in Charlotte, come to the transit center. You can get all the dope you want.”

A dataset of reported incidents from CATS Police, a private security firm staffed by Allied Universal Security Services, show the operator claims are not hyperbole.

Between April 1 and August 30 of this year, there are 50 assault incidents reported and another 10 assaults with a weapon. The data shows dozens of incident reports involving drugs, theft, larceny, and robbery attempts.

During a phone interview, CATS Safety and Security General Manager David Moskowitz said that Lewis’ claim of no incidents, was referring specifically to no operator assaults between the May 18 shooting and July 25 interview. Lewis did not specifically say he was referring to operator assaults during the interview.

WBTV cannot fact-check Moskowitz’s claim because Allied Universal—the company contracted as CATS’ police force—has not provided any police reports in response to a request made more than a month ago, despite a legal requirement to do so.

Lewis said the two shootings, including the death of CATS bus operator Ethan Rivera in a shooting, were not indicative of a safety problem on CATS buses.

“The characterization that that this bus system is unsafe because of two anomalies, I think is a mischaracterization,” Lewis said during the July interview.

CATS Data says differently

But more of CATS’ own data refutes Lewis’ claim.

Data presented to the local Metropolitan Transit Commission shows the bus system reported 21 total injuries to both employees and customers of the bus system between May and July.

More information WBTV uncovered about crime on CATS buses and CATS property shows the numbers being reported to the Federal Transit Administration don’t line up with internal reports.

The FTA requires transit systems to report safety and security events that happen on transit property or on buses, trains, and other modes of transportation. That includes everything from cyber security events to assaults, bomb threats to robbery and arson to homicide. It’s all part of the National Transit Database.

Through June of 2022, NTD data shows CATS reported just six total security events.

According to Moskowitz, CATS is correctly submitting data to the NTD. He claimed that some of the assault incidents, robberies and other reportable incidents might not reach the criteria for NTD reporting depending on whether there were injuries or where the incident took place.

The NTD reporting guide does not require incidents with injuries regarding assaults, robberies and other personal security events in order to be reported.

CATS sources have also told WBTV that the security reporting protocol for bus operators is cumbersome and is not always completed.

Operators are asked by RATP Dev management, the contractor that runs CATS bus system, to file a report on their intranet system regarding security events.

But Moskowitz said that even if that is not completed, it should not preclude events from ending up in the NTD report. Moskowitz said there are protocols so that all incidents reported by bus supervisors and CATS Police should be screened for reporting to NTD.

The data on safety and security is important because it impacts both federal and local funding for security measures.

The FTA says it “uses NTD data to apportion funding to urbanized and rural areas in the United States” and the information can help find trends to analyze.

Those numbers also help inform local budget decisions.

While Lewis denies any claims the bus system is not safe, he says funding safety improvements is a priority.

Budget records show CATS is planning to spend an additional $2 million in signing a new Memorandum of Understanding with CMPD to provide additional police and security services along rail and bus routes.

Moskowitz says CATS has sent the MOU to CMPD but it has not been signed yet. WBTV reached out to CMPD but has not received a response yet.

Moskowitz also says the security contract with Allied Universal is up and CATS is reviewing new bids and plans to spend more money to provide security.

Charlotte ranks high for operator injuries

Bus operators tell WBTV they haven’t noticed any differences in security practices since Rivera was shot and killed.

WBTV has received videos of dangerous and inappropriate situations at the CTC, including blatant drug use and a man walking around naked touching himself.

The data also points to an unsafe environment for operators.

According to NTD data, CATS bus operators have suffered 20 injuries so far in 2022. That ranks seventh nationwide and only trails much larger transit authorities like NYC, Washington and Atlanta.

Despite ranking 7th in injuries, CATS bus system only ranks 17th in total collisions. Injuries are counted from crashes, assaults, and all other security event types.

Since CATS and Allied have not provided copies of CATS Police incident reports yet, it is impossible to assign the source of all the injuries.

But operator assaults are happening. Court records show a female operator was assaulted in August in the food court of the CTC, when a man was accused of walking up unprovoked and dumping a tray of food on her.

Another court record shows a man was arrested after assaulting a CATS Police officer. He was previously banned from the transit center for yelling at “various transit staff.”

Just how divergent the reality of CATS safety is from the claims of CATS CEO John Lewis will only become fully transparent after the release of incident reports from CATS Police.