POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Citrus Connection may be one of the first mass transit districts in the state to support its bus drivers carrying pepper spray on the job.

Citrus Connection officials are calling it a proactive measure, giving drivers a way to defend themselves during a physical attack. The bus drivers are not allowed to carry firearms while at work. Passengers are also prohibited from riding with a firearm. 

In the last five years, the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District, which oversees Citrus Connection, reports having 18 incidents of verbal abuse directed at drivers but only one bus driver who was physically attacked back in 2018. 

“In the last five years we’ve seen one incident where the pepper spray may have been helpful,” said Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips. 

​“The passenger became irate, came up to the front of the bus, punched our driver twice," Phillips said. "There was about a three second pause while they had an interchange. There was a third punch and then the customer exited the bus.”

Beverly Beckworth has been a bus driver for Citrus Connection for 30 years. 

She’s never been threatened or assaulted, but likes the idea of being allowed to carry pepper spray. 

“It’s different for us to have pepper spray but in these days and times it might be a good idea to have protection for ourselves in case we need it," Beckworth said. 

She called the recent incidents of bus operators being stabbed in Hillsborough County shocking. 

“We all felt like we needed some type of protection for ourselves because we’re so vulnerable, sitting here with nothing,” Beckworth said, referring to her fellow bus driver colleagues. 

While other area mass transit agencies equip their buses with driver shields, Phillips said the shields may be ineffective. 

“The driver shields are great for that time when they’re behind the wheel, but they are interacting with the general public in a lot of ways that the driver shields wouldn’t protect them," he said.

The bus drivers often have to leave their seat to help the disabled.  

According to Phillips, they have policies in place that would hold bus drivers accountable if they use the pepper spray inappropriately. 

“All of our vehicles have audio and visual recording on them so we will review any incidences. Obviously, if a operator uses or if any employee of the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District uses pepper spray in a circumstance that was then determined to not be proper, that operator would be subject to progressive discipline up to and including termination,” Phillips said. 

By February 1, Citrus Connection hopes to have a procedure in place where employees notify them if they’re carrying pepper spray.