Did this driver take CATA’s mask mandate too far?

Driver fired, rehired, refired after fight with passenger at the Lansing Mall

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Craig Nieman admits that he doesn’t take the COVID-19 pandemic too seriously. But as a driver for the Capital Area Transportation Authority, it was part of his job to ensure that passengers wore face coverings.

So, when a local man decided to climb on Nieman’s bus at the Lansing Mall without a mask last summer, it became a problem — and, as it turned out, not just for the maskless passenger. 

Nieman, 61, ended his shift that day with a badly bruised eye after a confrontation with Michael Peterson, 28, of Lansing, escalated into violence. Peterson faces a warrant for assault charges. And the incident helped cost Nieman his job. 

“If we’re being honest, I really don’t give a shit about face masks. I think masks are freaking crazy, but I also had to worry about keeping my job,” Nieman said last week. “If I had noticed that a passenger was not wearing a mask, I had to tell them to wear one, or it was my job as a driver that was on the line. I just never thought it would ever lead to me being fired.” 

Nieman was waiting to drive his usual route from downtown Lansing to the Lansing Mall about 2:30 p.m. July 5 when Peterson boarded at the CATA station on Grand Avenue, he said. 

Peterson wasn’t wearing a face mask, but Nieman said he didn’t notice until he was already headed west on Saginaw Highway. Peterson hopped off at the next stop at the Lansing Mall — at first, avoiding the need for Nieman to confront him over CATA’s policies on face masks. 

But then Peterson returned. And police reports indicate that the situation quickly turned violent. 

“I told him that he needed a mask but he walked right past me,” Nieman recounted. “He told me: ‘Fuck it. I’m riding.’ Then, he started to threaten me, and he was cursing from the back of the bus, talking about how he would kick my ass. I got my microphone keyed up to let dispatch know what was going on, and I couldn’t believe how quickly he got up to the front of the bus.” 

Nieman added: “He told me: ‘If you call the police, I’m going to punch you.’ So, I keyed up my microphone and then he took a swing and hit me, big-time hard in the face. It was a big one.” 

Police reports indicate that Peterson mistakenly got off at the wrong bus stop and instantly became frustrated after Nieman attempted to refuse him service for not wearing a mask. And Peterson reportedly became enraged at the thought of law enforcement becoming involved — perhaps because he also had at least two active warrants at that time, court records showed.

Witnesses told deputies that Peterson darted to the front of the bus, reached behind the driver’s plastic glass protector and punched Nieman square in the face. Police reports and CATA officials also described a violent confrontation that spilled into the parking lot. At least one person called 911. 

After Peterson threw a punch, Nieman said that he tried to physically kick him away from the driver’s seat before getting up and shoving Peterson out of the bus and onto the sidewalk. 

“I’m thinking: I’m a 61-year-old obese man. I cannot stand here at the door and play kick-the-nitwit for a half-hour or until someone intervenes and calls the police,” Nieman said. 

Nieman said the tussle continued for several minutes after both men tripped over a curb and struggled for several minutes to gain the upper hand while they rolled around on the pavement. 

Eventually, Nieman said he was able to “escape” and retreat to his bus — but only after sinking his teeth into Peterson’s back for several seconds. Another passenger left the bus and had also pepper-sprayed Peterson — which caused him to run into the parking lot before Eaton County Sheriff’s deputies could make their way to the scene to investigate, police reports noted. Deputies caught up with Peterson in the parking lot, where he denied throwing the first punch. Police reports, however, still listed Nieman as the victim. Prosecutors authorized a misdemeanor assault charge against Peterson, though deputies still allowed him to leave the mall. A warrant was still active this week. A spokeswoman for the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office indicated that the case was delayed while Peterson deals with an unrelated criminal case in Lenawee County. 

The Lenawee County jail confirmed that Peterson was booked July 24 and was released Sept. 13. The Lenawee County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t respond to questions about the status of his latest criminal charges. Online records were unavailable.

“I was a driver, otherwise I would’ve beaten the hell out of him,” Nieman said. “So, all I really did was push this guy off the bus and then defend myself. I really did absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, I did less than what I should’ve done — and I ended up paying the price for all of it.” 

CATA officials, however, saw the situation differently than the police. Nieman was immediately suspended. Three days later, he was fired for a “serious violation” of multiple work rules, as well as a violation of “professional standards and expectations,” CATA officials wrote to Nieman. 

“From CATA’s investigation, it is not clear who started the physical altercation — you or the passenger,” according to a letter to Nieman from CATA operations manager Todd Brooks. “However, it is clear that after the passenger had disengaged from the situation, you continued the altercation by leaving your bus and actively pursuing physical violence against the passenger, ending with you physically tackling the passenger to the ground, punching him repeatedly and, from your statement, biting him on the back for ten to fifteen seconds.” 

CATA also defended those findings this week. 

“While the police report may have exonerated Mr. Nieman of criminal charges, his actions were troublingly excessive, resulting in unnecessary injuries to the rider, in violation of CATA work rules and procedural requirements. Operators are required to mitigate and de-escalate, not exacerbate,” a CATA spokeswoman told City Pulse. “Operators are encouraged to politely remind all to mask up or deny boarding those who refuse to comply. However, in supporting the mandate, CATA advises operators to avoid confrontation.” 

Less than a month later, however, CATA reversed Nieman’s termination under what he described as a “last-chance” agreement — a deal that he said he negotiated with top executives. The terms were simple: come back to work. Make another mistake and get fired. 

CATA officials said the reversal was offered at the direct request of labor union officials, who sought to “boost employee morale regarding the mandate.” The return-to-work agreement allowed Nieman to return with a “clean slate,” officials said. 

“I was sitting here without a job for weeks. It wasn’t a good deal, but it was either take this last-chance agreement or be shit-out-of-luck,” Nieman said. “I thought, I need a job so I’ll sign the contract — even though I hadn’t done anything wrong. But that all backfired on me too.” 

Less than two months later, Nieman said that he found himself back in CATA’s hot seat after he scraped the roof of his bus on a church soffit, causing “very minor” damage. CATA fired him again in October. He has been unemployed since.

“At that point, I think they were just looking for some reason to fire my ass,” Nieman contended. “I was the victim all the way around here, and I think I just deserve to be treated better than this. I wouldn’t treat your child like this, so I don’t expect you to treat my mother’s child like this.” 

Nieman contended that CATA bus drivers wouldn’t normally be fired for a “minor incident” like his accidental collision with the church. He also argued that his latest firing was a result of veiled, retroactive punishment for his encounter with Peterson. 

CATA officials, however, have denied that Nieman’s last firing was at all related to the fight. 

“That agreement allowed him to return to work with a clean slate. His Oct. 10 chargeable accident violated the terms of said agreement,” CATA said. “CATA emphatically maintains that this was a routine and justifiable employee discharge.” 

Additionally, Nieman was involved in a crash with his personal vehicle in April in Lansing Township that he did not report to CATA, which officials have also labeled an offense.

Nieman also described a suspension he received in early 2020 over a verbal argument with another driver. He also said that the Michigan State University Police Department had briefly investigated allegations from last year that he was “hitting on” one of his passengers. 

In that situation, Nieman said a teenage girl fell and ripped her jeans while boarding his bus on campus. After taking down her cell phone number to write a report over the incident, Nieman said that he had sent her text messages offering to replace the ripped pants later that evening. 

“Apparently, she thought I was hitting on her. I wasn’t. She called the MSU Police Department like I had done something wrong by offering to buy her a pair of pants,” Nieman said. “I met with a supervisor over that incident too. I told him it was wrong and that I shouldn’t have done it.” 

Nieman also sent emails to City Pulse in which he referred to female drivers as “baby girls.” 

Meaning “they,” he wrote: “If there ever get lonely they can call me and I will make them feel all better.”

CATA officials said they were unaware of those sexualized remarks, but they also declined to provide a full overview of Nieman’s employment history. City Pulse has since filed a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act for more details. 

A CATA spokeswoman also noted that the company has fielded multiple allegations of  “concerning behaviors and activities” exhibited by Nieman since he was fired. Those complaints have since sent to at least three local law enforcement agencies across Greater Lansing. 

Among those concerns: Nieman has taken several pictures of his former colleagues’ personal vehicles and sent them to CATA management, alleging that his old supervisors were having extramarital affairs. He also said he likes to “drive around” near CATA facilities in his free time. 

Said Nieman: “I may not get my job back, but I’m going to be in their faces for the rest of their lives.”

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