NJ Transit workers allege transit cops are slow to respond to attacks by riders

New lawsuit details assaults by ‘belligerent’ passengers

By: - May 2, 2023 7:09 am

A lawyer representing NJ Transit workers said attacks by riders are “an ongoing problem that hasn’t stopped.” (Photo by Edwin J. Torres/N.J. Governor’s Office)

Michelle Schwartz was working as a ticket collector at the NJ Transit train station in Long Branch when she alleges a rider cursed at her and tried to spit at her before punching her, causing her to hit a wall and suffer brain bleed and vision damage.

Another crew member called NJ Transit Police after the attack, but it wasn’t until another transit worker followed the suspect and pointed him out to Long Branch cops that he was detained, while transit officers arrived “sometime later,” Schwartz alleges.

Schwartz’s story is one of dozens detailed in several recent lawsuits filed by NJ Transit employees, including one filed in federal court Monday alleging the agency’s police officers don’t act quickly enough to calls from conductors and that the agency has failed to protect crew members from “belligerent” passengers even after repeated calls for more protections.

“This has been going on for a long time and hasn’t stopped,” said Robert Meyers, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “These incidents have happened at different stations, different rail lines. They are very common … It’s just an ongoing problem that hasn’t stopped.”

At least three crew members filed federal lawsuits in September, and 14 other train workers sued in July.

Part of the problem, Meyers said, is that rail workers have to ask a conductor to call NJ Transit Police when there is an issue with riders. And transit officers often aren’t at the stations and don’t respond to calls quickly, Meyers said.

Under the Federal Employers Liability Act — the federal law allowing railroad employees to sue for injury or illness because they aren’t eligible for worker’s compensation — the five transit officers who sued NJ Transit on Monday seek $150,000 each.

NJ Transit did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint details five times between October 2020 and January that train employees say they were assaulted by passengers. In none of the cases were transit police immediately on the scene, the lawsuit claims.

On May 5, 2021, Mark Coppola was checking tickets on a northeast corridor train stopped at Newark Penn Station. Coppola asked a rider for their ticket when the passenger began to rush at Coppola and attacked him, according to the lawsuit. The attack caused his right shoulder to pop out of place, which led to a torn rotator cuff and spine injury, he alleges.

Coppola had to radio the conductor to call NJ Transit Police before the train arrived at Secaucus so transit officers would be ready to apprehend the suspect, but the conductor never notified officials, and the suspect ran off the train, according to the lawsuit.

The most recent case described in the complaint happened on Jan. 2, when Melanie Best spotted a man smoking on the train while she was collecting tickets at Newark Penn Station. She asked him to stop, and when he ignored her, she called the conductor for police help, the suit states.

The train was due to leave Newark but was held up waiting for police for more than 20 minutes — none were present on the platform or the train, according to the complaint. The suspect got into an argument with transit workers and nearly struck them with a glass bottle, only stopping when he was held back by train riders, the complaint states.

Best was spit on and had to be tested for AIDS on several occasions afterward, according to the lawsuit.

NJ Transit officials were aware of these frequent assaults, the suit alleges, pointing to cases of assaults against transit workers dating back to 1992. At least 66 rail crew assaults were reported between 2013 and 2020, according to NJ Transit records.

Meyers noted that the Legislature has acknowledged there is an ongoing issue that escalated during the pandemic when mask mandates were in effect. In January 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill upgrading the crime for assaulting a public or private transit employee.

“Trains people are the frontline of everything here — whether people are crowded on the train coming back from concerts or parades, drinking, all kinds of activities. You’re in a train car with 90 people, and three people are refusing to pay their fare and moving around and start throwing punches — it’s always the trains people who get hurt,” Meyers said.

He hopes the agency will beef up security and transit police officers’ presence at train stations and platforms. 

“This is something that we hope that if we bring enough attention to it, there will be a better response, and getting increased security, not just for employees of NJ Transit but members of the public as well,” he said. “Why should anybody ride on the train and be in fear? Don’t we have enough problems in society today?”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.