Nov 22, 2017
The boy was stuck in the door of the Metro bus on Buffalo’s West Side just over a year ago.
His legs dangled in busy traffic for the length of a city block.
Finally, the driver heard the screams of his passengers.
“Stop the bus, stop the bus!” they yelled. “There’s a boy stuck in the door!”
Ana Lopez was on that bus and she remembers the panic.
“[It was] just like a baby crying,” she recalled. “He was in pain, he sounded in pain.”
All of this was caught on tape by cameras paid for by taxpayers that are mounted on each and every Metro bus.
After a year-long battle with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to obtain that footage, the contents of those cameras remain secret.
But even as they sit locked away in the NFTA’s downtown headquarters, the videos tell a story.
It’s a story about how far local governments will go to keep the public in the dark.
Charlie Specht/Investigative Reporter:
“Why won't the NFTA release this video to the public?”
Helen Tederous/NFTA spokeswoman:
“We require and we feel very much obligated to protect the privacy of our riders.”
Bob Freeman is the director of New York State’s Committee on Open Government. He values privacy but said in this case, it simply doesn't apply.
“When the incident occurs in plain sight and could be seen by any number of people, the argument involving personal privacy, it seems to me diminishes...it may even disappear,” Freeman said.
Consider that four years ago, the NFTA released a video of one of its bus drivers saving the life of a woman who was about to jump off a bridge.
The bus driver was hailed as a hero and even received a $10,000 payment from Donald Trump for his bravery and quick thinking.
The story went viral, landing on the national newscasts and bringing untold amounts of good publicity to the NFTA.
Specht/Reporter: “There's people who would say, 'Look, that's an incident where the NFTA looked good, this is an incident where the NFTA might not look good, and there's a double standard.' How do you respond to that?”
Tederous/NFTA: “The woman's face was redacted to our satisfaction, and that's why that video was released.”
Tederous is the NFTA’s new spokeswoman. In the interest of transparency, we want to explain why we interviewed her and not the agency's top leaders.
The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team first asked for an interview with NFTA Executive Director Kimberley Minkel, who makes $218,000 per year in public money, but through Tederous, she declined an interview request.
We were told we could interview David State, the NFTA’s general counsel who makes $157,000 per year, but he backed out while we were setting up our cameras.
So the task fell on Tederous to explain the bus accident, even though she didn't even work for the NFTA at the time the child was stuck in the door.
Soon after the child was caught in the door of the bus, former NFTA spokesman Doug Hartmayer declined our request to see a copy of the video, citing internal policy against releasing videos.
After we pointed out the NFTA released the video of the hero bus driver, Hartmayer invited us to NFTA headquarters to view the video of the child but said we still could not have a copy.
Once we pointed out that the state Freedom of Information Law allows citizens to copy and inspect records (and does not allow authorities to distinguish between the two), the NFTA changed course and said we could have a copy of the video if we paid a fee.
The fee was $1,902.82.
The NFTA said it needed the money to pay someone to blur out the faces of its passengers, something the I-Team offered to do for free.
“That's sort of like giving someone medical records and saying, 'Okay, use your sharpie to cover up and hide the information,’” Tederous said. “We really do have to be very careful."
But 7 Eyewitness News offered to bring its equipment to the NFTA and blur out the faces for them under NFTA supervision -- something that would take about five minutes and would cost taxpayers nothing.
“They turned you down...In my opinion, that simply doesn't make a lot of sense,” said Freeman, the Freedom of Information Law expert.
About those blurred out faces: The NFTA wasn't so worried about privacy in May, when it asked the media to circulate a picture of a man suspected in a stabbing. No faces of the other passengers on the bus were blurred out.
Tederous/NFTA: “So it was an error.”
Specht/Reporter: “You have to ask yourself, 'Is the NFTA just doing whatever it can to stop this video from getting to the public?'”
Tederous/NFTA: “It...wasn't as if we were trying to prevent this, we just wanted that video to be released in a fashion that we were comfortable with.”
Specht/Reporter: “How can you expect the public to have a trust in this agency when it makes them jump through so many hoops like this?”
Tederous/NFTA: “I would say that the public does trust the NFTA. We spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure that we're in compliance with FOIL.”
FOIL, or New York State’s Freedom of Information Law, is what we used to try to obtain another NFTA bus video in January after bus rider Nancy Hodges said a bus driver verbally harassed her on a Metro bus because she was disabled.
Hodges recalled the bus driver saying, “‘Why should I give you a reduced fare card? You don't look like you're disabled and you're going to have to pay full price because Donald Trump said this is a new America and everyone is going to have to pay their own way.’”
At the time of the incident, the NFTA said it was "reviewing all available video" to see what transpired.
But when we asked for a copy, the NFTA said it had "no video or audio records" because there was a "video system defect" on that bus.
“We're supposed to be public servants,” Freeman said. “And we're supposed to make records available, in the words of the law, whenever and wherever feasible.”
Charlie Specht is the Chief Investigator for the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team.
Have a story idea? Contact him at Charlie.Specht@wkbw.com.