Janet Lee

Janet Lee
Photo:Janet Lee, injured by a taxi partition.

Friday, November 27, 2015

How to end the murder rate of cab drivers in New Orleans

Shielding taxi drivers

         Looking for reasons why requiring bulletproof shields in taxis is a bad idea? That's easy. They would block the flow of cool air to the backseat, leaving passengers wilted in New Orleans heat. They would block the flow of friendly conversation between drivers and their customers. That would muzzle some highly entertaining goodwill ambassadors. They're expensive, which would put a financial burden on drivers.            They aren't an assurance of protection. A determined assailant could come at a driver through a front-seat window or the windshield. Those are legitimate arguments against Mayor MoriaI's push to require the shields. But all of them together can't overcome the best argument for them: 12 New Orleans cabbies murdered in the past three years; four this year, and two this month. Those numbers take on greater significance if you consider that there are only about 1,700 taxis in the city. That equates to an appalling murder rate among New Orleans cabbies and demands an intense response. That won't necessarily make the mayor's proposal popular.             Drivers talk about other, they say better, solutions. Allow them to refuse passengers who don't call from a verifiable home or business phone. Allow them to make change for nothing greater than a $20 bill. The latest victim, 30-year veteran driver Joe Johnson, shows those solutions to be far from perfect as well. Mr. Johnson, friends and family said, was a cautious driver. He kept little cash in his cab and was extremely careful about who he picked up. He was the kind of guy who warned other drivers to take the same kind of precautions. 
           Still, he was found early Aug. 14 stabbed to death on Magazine Street. Police believe he died in a holdup after picking up a fare in the French Quarter. Ironically, the completion of the study Mayor Morial ordered in May on the usefulness of bulletproof shields coincided with Mr. Johnson's death.
   It is a convincing document. The message from officials in almost all of the 10 cities surveyed is that the shields have made cab driving a safer occupation. In Newark, N.J., where the requirement has been in place since 1966, only one cab-driver has been killed in the past 15 years. In Boston, only seven cabbies have been murdered since the shield law was passed in 1969.
  There are success stories in cities that, like New Orleans, have come to this idea in recent years. Five cabdrivers were murdered between 1990 and '94 in San Francisco, but there has been only one slaying in the past three years.
  No one is arguing that the shields erase all risk of attack. But they clearly reduce the risk - and save lives.
  In addition to putting a physical barrier between drivers and would-be assailants, the shields serve as a deterrent in a more general way. They are a very visible anti-violence symbol.
  There is no getting around the expense of buying and installing the shields. The mayor's task force found they ranged from $300 to $800, with a variety of features. Some have vents for air flow. Some open and close electronically, like power windows. Some can be removed and used again if a driver changes cars. They're all quick to install.
  Those options could answer some of the complaints drivers have about shields. They also affect the cost, usually pushing it upward. Concerns about passenger comfort must be given high priority, particularly since the New Orleans economy relies so heavily on tourism.
  Mayor Morial is considering a fare increase to offset the cost. That is an obvious option, but we hope it isn't the only one considered. A permanent rate increase seems to be overdoing it for what will most likely be a one time expense.
  There are still many questions to be answered: Which shield or shields would be best; how would the requirement be phased in; how to pay for them.
  We wish there were no need for a barrier to keep cabbies safe in our citv. And
what we really hope to see is the dramatic drop in violent crime that Superintendant Richard Pennington promises

  A safer city is the best way to ensure safe cab drivers.

For many years the news media and the police in New Orleans made a fatal mistake. That is, until 1997. Boston, New York and many other cities still have it wrong and more people die from being shot, because of this policy error.

In 1997 - the New Orleans Times Picayune changed their editorial policy from the usual story; "Witless, vulnerable dupe of a cab driver - easily slain in a remote area, by a lone gunman, who used the taxi for his get-away. Police have few leads" This actually inspires more aggression against the apparently unarmed cab driver.

When it becomes less apparent that the driver is unarmed, crime goes down.

The Times Picayune newspaper published an editorial that called partitions ineffective but also said they probably should be required for taxis. I called the writer of the editorial and suggested that portraying cab drivers as vulnerable... is risky, for cab drivers.

The standard operating procedure, as advised by the police authorities, is, for the driver to yield to aggressors and surrender anything demanded by the assailant.

I suggested that the Times Picayune newspaper start describing New Orleans cab drivers as deadly, when faced with a deadly threat. I suggested they run with the angle that it is dangerous to try to rob a New Orleans cab driver, not easy. After all, it is true, that many New Orleans cab drivers DO carry firearms.

That conversation took place in 1997. From 1994 to 1997 - 13 cab drivers were shot dead. After the change in the editorial policy took place in 1997, the murder rate went to zero for over ten years. This happened in the deadliest city, in the deadliest occupation. Had the usual editorial policy remained in place, as many as 30 cab drivers might have been shot dead in those ten years.

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