RTA Driver Suspended Over Confrontation

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CLEVELAND -- Fox 8 News has learned that an RTA bus driver has been suspended without pay following a confrontation with passengers earlier this month.

By all accounts, tensions were running high on Feb. 1 as passengers were waiting to get on a bus on Public Square in downtown Cleveland.

The passengers claim the driver, 43-year-old Johnnie Benson, would not allow them to get onto the bus, as he spoke to a relief driver, and they began to yell and pound on the bus doors and windows.

According to passenger Amara Smith, as Benson got off the bus, he accused her of tripping him, and the 20-year-old contends Benson then attacked her.

"I don't know if someone tripped him or what, but he accused me of tripping him.  I didn't even know, like, I didn't have time to put my ticket inside of the thing, and somebody grabbed me from the back, punched me in the back of my head, and, like, tried to choke me," said Smith.

Another passenger, 18-year-old Ira Merritt, who attends the same school as Smith, says he attempted to protect Smith, and was attacked by Benson.

"He turned around and grabbed her and hit her in the back of her head and I grabbed him to try and stop him from hitting her,” said Merritt.  “And when I grabbed him, he turned around and repeatedly punched me in my face until somebody broke it up."

According to the police report obtained by Fox 8, the driver told investigators that he felt the first passenger tripped him, so he pushed her, and that when the second passenger attempted to intervene, he felt threatened and felt he had to defend himself.

But the RTA police officer who filed the report wrote, "Due to witness and victim statements, I determined Benson to be the primary physical aggressor."

RTA has placed Benson on what the agency calls crisis suspension without pay.

Smith and Merritt say they are pressing assault charges against Benson and plan to file lawsuits against Benson and RTA.

When asked by Fox 8, "Did you trip him?” Smith answered, “No, but even if I did trip him, all he had to do was say, 'Ma'am, you tripped me,' and I'm just going to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Both passengers say there are heightened tensions on RTA buses because of recent incidents, including a videotaped confrontation in September between a driver and a passenger, who allegedly spit on and tried to choke the driver.

The driver, Artis Hughes, was shown on video punching the passenger, and tossing her off the bus.

He was later fired by RTA, but the transit union is appealing his dismissal.

Union officials declined comment on the latest case, but President William Nix told Fox 8 that if RTA fires Benson, the union intends to fight for his job.