Washington Post
(Washington, DC, USA)
August 22, 2001

Taxi Camera Develops Its First Lead for Police

Armed Robbery in Mount Vernon Caught in Digital Clarity

By Tom Jackman and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers

The photos are riveting in their realism: In one frame, a man is holding a gun to the cabdriver's head while a second passenger jabs a knife at the driver's ribs.

It's a robbery in progress on Route 1 in Mount Vernon last Friday, and the suspects are still at large. It's also the first time a camera installed by a Washington area taxi company has produced sharp images for police to use in catching suspects.

The technology is relatively new but is rapidly spreading through cab companies nationwide, including the District, where drivers will be required to have a camera or other safety device in place by October.

Springfield Yellow Cab, which operates 107 taxis in Northern Virginia, voluntarily began installing the small cameras in plain sight next to its cars' rearview mirrors about two months ago. After Friday's holdup, the company quickly provided Fairfax County police with images of the two men.

"We definitely want robbers to know when they get in our cabs they'll get their pictures taken," company safety officer Bob Massey said, emphasizing that protecting drivers is the paramount concern.

No one was hurt in Friday's robbery, which occurred about 1:50 a.m. Police said the cab was sent to pick up two men at Janna Lee Avenue. The men then directed the driver, 49, to Fairchild Drive; when they arrived, the men pulled out their weapons and demanded money, police said.

Massey said they escaped with $29.

The infrared cameras are programmed to take photos when the cab's doors are opened, when the meter is activated and at unspecified intervals during the ride, said Mark Ward, of Raywood Communications Inc., the Houston company that built the cameras used by Springfield Yellow Cab. The driver is also able to snap pictures manually.

Each device stores 320 digital frames, which are reviewed only if there has been a crime, he said.

The cameras debuted with Houston Yellow Cab in 1999 and have since been introduced in Austin, Denver, Jacksonville, Fla., Minneapolis, New York and San Antonio, Ward said. "Taxi driver is one of the most dangerous public service occupations in the world," he said. "A camera is a great deterrent for crime."

The danger isn't news to drivers in the District, where four cabby shootings in 1999 and 2000 prompted the D.C. Taxicab Commission to require that all 6,200 cabs install a camera, a glass partition or a switch that triggers flashing lights and dials 911. The original deadline passed this year, and commission Chairman Lee E. Williams said yesterday that Oct. 1 is the new, firm deadline.

The commission is to determine at a hearing Tuesday which devices are acceptable. "Anything that can help save a life, we approve," Williams said.

To help cabbies afford the equipment and meet the deadline, the panel has interest-free, one-year loans of up to $250. The cost ranges from $250 for a safety shield to as much as $1,000 for a digital camera.

A similar proposal is pending in Prince George's County, where four cabdrivers were killed in a 12-month span beginning last year. County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) said his legislation requiring cameras or shields in all of the county's 775 licensed cabs will go before the council next month. He said the bill would help cabbies who cannot afford the devices.

No other Washington suburb is seeking to require safety improvements for taxi drivers. Deane White, general manager of driver services for Barwood Cab in Kensington, said crime is low in that suburb, making surveillance equipment an unnecessary expense. Other companies expressed similar sentiments.

Taxi industry officials said the cameras, which have a face about three inches square, first appeared in Houston two years ago. "We are definitely pleased," saidEllis Houston, vice president of Greater Houston Transportation Co., the city's largest cab company. He said robberies and assaults against drivers have dropped 50 percent since the devices went in, and arrests were made in all five cases in which assailants were caught on camera.

Though some argue that partitions provide better protection in cabs, Houston called them "a complete failure." Drivers say they hamper communication with passengers, thus reducing tips, while passengers say they curtail airflow during hot and cold weather. Houston's cabs have stickers on the outside alerting riders to the cameras, and some passengers have backed out after reading the warning, he said.

Springfield Yellow Cab said violence against its drivers -- two have been shot in the past three years -- compelled the company to act. Massey said each camera cost about $750 to buy and install.

Raywood, the camera's manufacturer, said privacy concerns have been minimal. "The back of a taxicab is considered public domain," Ward noted. "Unless you commit a crime in the back of a taxi, your picture's not going to be viewed."

Police like it, too. "This is a great idea," said Fairfax Officer Julie Hersey, "not just to help us identify suspects, but to deter future robberies."

Staff writer Jeff Baron contributed to this report.

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