Nevada Taxicab Authority Cops Part Police, Part Regulators

JEN LAWSON, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Dozens of taxicabs lined the curb under the blinking lights of the Rio hotel-casino as John Hoffman drove by slowly, looking at each one.

Several cabdrivers nodded at him. A few smiled. Most stared warily.

"Some of them see us as the enemy," Hoffman said.

Hoffman, a former police lieutenant in Massachusetts, is a senior investigator with the Nevada Taxicab Authority, the only taxi authority in the nation with law enforcement and regulatory roles.

Its 28 investigators in Clark County have full police powers. They carry guns and badges, and patrol the streets in marked vehicles. All are former detectives, sergeants or higher-ranking supervisors in local or state police agencies.

One Taxicab Authority officer recently arrested two people on charges of robbing a cabdriver and shooting him in the head. Authority officers are helping Las Vegas police investigate the death of cabbie Abera Yerga Asmamaw, who was found strangled in his taxi Aug. 11.

"We're just like any other law enforcement agency," Taxicab Authority Administrator Yvette Moore said.

The beat revolves around Clark County's 16 cab companies, more than 1,650 cabs and 4,570 drivers.

Keeping an eye on drivers is one part of the job. Investigating crimes in which drivers are victims gets a higher priority.

As of May 30, there had been 24 cab driver robberies in Las Vegas in 2003. One driver was shot. In 2002 there were 51 robberies; 116 in 2001; and 52 in 2000.

Since the '70s, there have been 15 cab drivers slain in Clark County. Before this year, the most recent homicide was in 1999, when a 63-year-old driver was found beaten to death in his cab.

In 1995 the Taxicab Authority began requiring green distress lights on the roofs of the cabs. If the light is on, the driver is in danger and signaling for anyone who sees it to call 911.

Investigators handle taxi-related crimes jointly with local, state or federal law enforcement agencies. Sometimes, authority officers write summonses for violations such as high-flagging and long-hauling.

High-flagging is leaving the meter off and pocketing the customer's fare.

Long-hauling is taking a customer on a roundabout route to run up a fare.

Russ Franks, 59, a visitor from New York, said he could remember Las Vegas taxi drivers trying to long-haul him. But he said he thought the southern Nevada taxi business had been cleaned up in recent years.

The Taxicab Authority was established in 1969 by the state Legislature, which gave the authority jurisdiction in counties with a population of 400,000 or more. In Nevada, only Clark County with 1.6 million residents is that large.

Joe Dahlia, a senior investigator with the authority, said competition had become so fierce that some drivers resorted to attacking each others' cars.

The authority is funded through annual fees of $100 per cab and 15 cents per taxi trip.

Other places have government agencies that regulate the taxicab industry and police officers who handle taxicab crimes as they occur, but no other city or county has a taxicab authority that does both, Moore said. San Diego, New Orleans and Calgary, Alberta, have sent representatives to Las Vegas to explore the possibility of starting similar agencies.

Bonnie Steves gave the idea of a taxicab-only enforcement agency a timid endorsement as she waved fruitlessly at empty taxicabs passing by the Desert Passage shopping mall.

"In New York I put my hand out and I have a cab, and I spend half the money to do it," she said.

She ended up going to the other side of the mall to join a line of more than 100 people at a taxi stand outside the Aladdin hotel-casino lobby.

Hoffman said the authority enforces a rule restricting taxi pickups to cab stands near some hotel-casinos.

Patrolling downtown on a recent night, Hoffman found a taxi without the proper medallion picking up passengers outside the Plaza hotel-casino.

He gave the female cabbie a summons for operating without proper certification.

A few years ago, the authority ran sting operations aimed at doormen at striptease clubs paying kickbacks to cabbies to steer business their way even if passengers asked to go to a different club.

Moore said a current issue involves limousine drivers tipping hotel doormen to steer customers from cab stands to their limousines.

The Taxicab Authority and the state Transportation Services Authority, which regulates limos, plan to put limos under the jurisdiction of the Taxicab Authority. That would let the Taxicab Authority penalize unscrupulous limousine drivers.

Investigators said they've dealt with rogue drivers disappearing with their cabs and gambling away fares, or stealing fares and claiming they were robbed. Investigators also conduct undercover stings to catch drivers who commit drug-related offenses or offer to take passengers to a place where they can buy drugs, Dahlia said.

Penalties can include a fine, suspension or revocation of operating permits. Investigators also can give drivers traffic tickets.

Cabbie Cereca Bowman called hearings before Taxicab Authority officers "a kangaroo court."

"Anybody says something against us, they take their word over ours," Bowman said. "If somebody robs us, they give us the third-degree, not the benefit of the doubt."

She said that because cab companies supply funding for the authority, the authority seems to work for cab companies more than the public and cab drivers.

Craig Harris, a Las Vegas cab driver for more than 20 years and managing editor of Trip Sheet, a taxi industry publication, said he's received summonses from the Taxicab Authority and also has been a crime victim.

He said that as a newsletter editor, he hears complaints about the Taxicab Authority, but he said authority investigators handled his incidents professionally, and he has a good rapport with many of them.

"They've done some good, kick-over-rocks type investigations," Harris said. "Regarding drivers ... if we don't follow certain procedures, they'll nail us."

Associated Press
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