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Taxi troubles: balancing safety, civil rights

(Published November 29, 1999)


Staff Writer

Representatives of the D.C. metropolitan areaís taxicab drivers say their recent town meeting with Mayor Anthony A. Williams was productive because the mayor and his aides heard citizensí concerns about discrimination by cabbies as well as driversí concerns about safety "from the horseís mouth."

"They know black folks canít get a cab," said Louis Richardson, vice president and founder of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Association, who said he had unsuccessfully attempted to meet with the mayor on multiple occasions. "Now (Williams) knows and that was my main objective. He got it from the horseís mouth."

Amid many taxicab driversí hisses and loud boos, Kathleen Beall, a white Georgetown resident, called on the drivers to stop discriminating against black passengers and against riders going short distances.

Beall, 37, who takes taxicabs regularly, said she reached Union Station at 2:10 a.m. on Nov. 18 after a trip from New York. None of the taxicab drivers would pick up African-Americans waiting in the taxicab cue or passengers who were not going to Virginia. Beall said she waited outside for 40 minutes and finally called six cab companies so she and the others could get home.

"Thereís no (other) way to get home," Beall said. "Thereís no Metro running. Thereís no bus."

Abdusalam Omer, the mayorís chief of staff, emphasized that cab driversí safety is important to the government "but racial profiling is not acceptable in this city" as a safety measure, he asserted.

Williams agreed that a balance must be struck between the driversí safety and "the civil rights of our citizens."

"You are our ambassadors," the mayor told the cabbies. "You have my commitment that whatever we do, you will have the same standard of living."

After two recent stabbings of D.C. cab drivers in one week, safety was the driversí top concern.

"You have a right to earn a living and you have a right to feel safe on your jobs," Williams said. "We know that you canít have safe and healthy neighborhoods if cab drivers are being murdered for their cash or if citizens canít get a cab, or if cab drivers canít afford to live in the neighborhood."

The meeting began with a moment of silence for deceased cab driver Larry Barnes, whose family attended the meeting. Barnes, 73, died Nov. 10 after being stabbed multiple times in an apparent robbery in the 1200 block of Pleasant Street SE. Police found him about 4 p.m. lying in the street near his black Globe cab. Six days later, another cab driver suffered minor injuries after he was stabbed at a parking lot in the 400 block of O Street NW.

The mayor discussed several possible solutions the D.C government is considering to ensure the driversí safety -- including safety shields, an electronic payment system, and a system designed to pinpoint taxicab locations.

Yoshihiro Takata, who has driven a taxicab for 30 years, said he has been robbed 13 times in 12 years. After the last robbery, which occurred Sept. 23, he spent $383 on a protective shield for his cab.

"With the protective shield Iím not afraid of picking up black males," said Takata, who said he had stopped picking up black men after repeated robberies.

But some taxicab drivers said they oppose the protective shields.

"I would never want to see shields in taxicabs in Washington, D.C.," said African-American driver Billy Ray Edwards. "It would take away from the ambience of the city."

Mayor Williams said the Nov. 22 meeting with cab drivers at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington was the first of many meetings he wants to hold with them. Williams vowed to meet quarterly with them to discuss their concerns.

After the meeting Nathan Price, president of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Association, said he recently talked with D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey about cab driversí safety. Ramsey promised to place more patrols in high-crime neighborhoods, he said.

"That was encouraging," Price said. "This thing of denying service to African-Americans has to come to an end."

Richardson called for the enforcement of municipal regulations that ban discrimination against taxicab passengers. These regulations have not been enforced, he charges, because taxicab insurers would lose money if the cityís large number of taxicabs were reduced.

Currently, he said, taxicab drivers pay $1,716 in annual insurance to five companies. The District has about 8,000 cabs. Removing drivers who discriminate from the road would result in a loss of revenues, he explained. He also charged the taxicab industry with corruption and said that previous mayorsí administrations did not enforce the non-discrimination regulations.

"Until we clean up this industry, you get nowhere," Richardson said.

Taxicab commissioner Sandra Seegars agreed with Richardson.

"We have a whole slew of regulations," Seegars said, adding that only three hack inspectors are available to oversee 6,000 taxicab drivers.

In a subsequent interview, George Crawford, the acting chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission, called on citizens who have been discriminated against to file a complaint with the commission. Victims of discrimination should take down the driverís name and taxicab number, he said. Drivers who discriminate could be fined $250 on a first offense, have their licenses suspended on a second offense, and permanently lose their taxicab licenses after a third offense, Crawford said.

Seegars called on Williams to show evidence that he has honored his commitments to the drivers by the next town meeting, which is expected to occur in early spring.

"He should have a list of things he has accomplished," said Seegars, a recent Williams appointee. "If not, itís just a waste."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator