When an argument between a passenger and a bus driver escalated outside a Charlotte mall last week, two other passengers moved to the back of the bus.
Then gunshots were exchanged.
On Wednesday, Interim Charlotte Area Transit System CEO Brent Cagle spoke for the first time about the May 18 incident that left a driver and passenger with life-threatening injuries.
Cagle identified the bus operator as David Fullard, who has been dismissed from his duties. The CATS CEO also cited new safety measures CATS is implementing in response.
“It’s never okay for passengers to assault drivers to threaten drivers,” Cagle said during an afternoon press conference. “However, we also acknowledge that gun violence and violence in general is pervasive throughout the community.”
Fullard failed to follow deescalation protocol because he didn’t leverage the appropriate alarms. Fullard also broke CATS policy by carrying a gun, Cagle said.
It’s unclear if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department will seek charges against Fullard.
The passenger, Omarri Shariff Tobias has been charged with felony assault, banned from all city public transportation and jailed with a $250,000 bond, according to court documents.
“The passenger pulled a firearm on the operator, and the operator also pulled out a firearm,” CATS said in an email. “Both individuals shot at each other.”
Both men are now listed as stable and are expected to recover, CATS spokesman Brandon T. Hunter said in an email Wednesday. Two other adult passengers on the bus were not injured. CMPD Steele Creek officers confiscated both firearms and the department’s investigation is ongoing.
Charlotte buses have two silent alarms: one that allows security to listen into what’s happening on the bus and another that displays “911 call police” on the outside of the bus. Fullard did not hit either button.
CATS is waiting on the Transportation Security Administration to approve the release of a video of the shooting, which Cagle described as a “tragedy.” CATS will provide it to media once it’s approved, Cagle said.
‘There is a citywide problem’
Charlotte City Councilman Ed Driggs says a May 18 shooting on a CATS bus at Charlotte Premium Outlets Mall last week doesn’t reflect problems with the city’s transit system.
It was the fourth known incident involving a firearm on a CATS bus in less than two years.
“It’s not so much a CATS problem, it’s more that there is a citywide problem,” Driggs told The Charlotte Observer. “Young people are shooting each other for minor disputes.”
Cagle agreed, saying CATS is not “immune” to the public safety challenges Charlotte faces.
But the shooting still brings an important opportunity for safety improvements.
The proposed CATS capital project budget allocates more than $5.5 million for camera replacements, dispatch upgrades and safety programs for 2024-2028 to increase security on transit routes.
“We will take the opportunity of this process to ask the right questions,” Driggs said. “Do you have to have a metal detector to make sure a driver isn’t bringing a gun on a bus?”
Officials at RATP Dev USA said in a statement they were working closely with CATS and CMPD during the investigation.
“Our number one concern is the health and well being of our Operator who was injured as well as the safety of all our employees and riders across Charlotte Mecklenburg County,” the company said in an emailed statement.
North Carolina does not have a law prohibiting passengers from carrying a gun on public transit, but Cagle made it clear guns are not welcome on CATS buses.
“I do not think that it is beneficial to CATS to make the assumption that our riders and our operators are safer if they are armed,” Cagle said.
Operators are not allowed to have cell phones with them while driving buses, let alone a firearm, Cagle said.
What is CATS doing to make buses safer?
In new security contracts, Cagle said the number of CATS security employees will double next year with an additional $3.5 million added to the security operating budget.
CATS is also expanding its bus ambassador program that puts another employee on the bus with the operator to help with customer service and security.
Cagle announced plans to provide additional and ongoing deescalation and customer service training for bus operators.
“I believe what we’re doing protects the safety for the passengers and the drivers,” Cagle said. “The fact is, it occurs all over this city and all over this country.”
Violence on CATS transit
Between 2018 and 2021, 40 incidents of violence against CATS operators were reported, the Observer reported in 2022. The number of cases reached a four-year high of in 2021. There were 11 in 2020, seven in 2019 and eight in 2018, CATS data show. The Observer requested updated data from CATS for 2022 and 2023.
Since 2022, there have been four known gunfire incidents involving CATS buses:
▪ On Oct. 10, 2022, a CATS bus passenger fired a bullet back at the bus after exiting it, injuring a passenger.
Police said the bullet hit the side of the bus, its impact bruising a passenger’s shoulder. The bullet didn’t hit the passenger, CMPD said.
▪ On May 18, 2022, someone shot at a CATS bus after being left by the bus.
“It was the last bus of the evening,” former CATS CEO John Lewis said. “The individual, in this case, was waiting at the bus stop and jumped out in front of the bus to wave his hands and there was an argument.”
▪ On Feb. 11, 2022, a 41-year-old bus driver was fatally shot in what police call a road rage incident.
Ethan Rivera had worked as a bus driver for CATS for just over a year when he was shot. He died a day later.
Bulletproof windows, doors not the answer?
One solution the City Council and CATS have discussed: bulletproof doors or barricades.
In response to the Rivera shooting, Republican City Councilman Tariq Bokhari, along with many Republicans running for office in 2022, worked with local companies Queen City Engineering and Polymer Shapes to create an operational bulletproof shield for bus operators under $5,000 each.
CATS ultimately did not implement the bulletproof shields, and it’s something that’s stuck with Bokhari even after Lewis resigned from the agency.
“My last straw was when my group was fabricating the bulletproof bus doors, and I kept him updated on a daily basis as he was supportive, then for no reason (Lewis) lied to the public saying he’d never heard of the effort and didn’t want it,” Bokhari said.
Lewis said the push from city council for bulletproof barriers, windows and doors was a “kneejerk reaction” to specific incidents. He also said the weight of the thick glass could affect how the buses operate and turn.
“There’s a huge difference in random acts of violence and targeted acts,” Lewis said. “It was a terrible situation, that was not a result of an individual working for the transit company.”
Cagle said the agency has no plans to implement bulletproof barriers or windows on buses.
Despite the challenges the agency has faced, Cagle has a sense of optimism.
“Things are getting better at CATS in little and big ways,” Cagle said.