- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2000

There have been so many shootings, robberies and assaults on cabbies lately, officials in the District, New York and other large metropolises are considering a number of safety-related reforms, including mandatory bullet-proof shields, hidden cameras and, of all things, "diversity training" for cabbies afraid of passengers they fear would rob or shoot them. Such training would no doubt be a great comfort to the drivers as they stare down the barrel of a gun.
What turned the cabbies' plight into a major controversy here and elsewhere is not the routine beating and shooting of the drivers; city officials apparently can live with that. The problem was that in an effort to protect themselves, the drivers began skipping fares they thought might present a safety risk. As it happened, many of those fares turned out to be either black or persons heading to predominantly black neighborhoods that the drivers considered potentially life-threatening.
By law, cabbies are permitted to pass up passengers they presume would present a danger to them or the cab. Sandra Seegars, a D.C. Taxicab commissioner, has urged them to stay out of "dangerous neighborhoods," such as those east of the Anacostia River, and to avoid picking up risky fares such as "a young black guy with his hat on backwards, shirt-tail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear and unlaced tennis shoes."
One might easily suggest avoiding anyone dressed that way, no matter what the fare's color. But critics immediately denounced Ms. Seegars, who happens to be black, for racial stereotyping. "If she was of another race, we wouldn't even be having this discussion she'd be gone," Lamont Mitchell, special assistant to Mayor Anthony Williams for east of the river, told The Washington Post last week. Perhaps Mr. Mitchell needs some time in sensitivity training too.
Still there seems little doubt that minorities are bearing the brunt of cab drivers' fears. Some blacks get around that by hailing cabs at hospitals, outside hotels and at Union Station, where lines of cabbies are but a whistle away. That solves their immediate transportation needs, but not the cabbies'.
Diversity training, implying as it does that cabbies are more concerned about skin color than whether they will survive the next fare, is ludicrous and irrelevant. Many of the cabbies, by the way, aren't white or U.S. natives anyway. Bullet-proof shields are a deterrent, and a great number of the 6,200 taxicabs in the District already have them. Hidden cameras would be useful. To be able to present police officials with a photograph of a suspect or suspects, instead of a personal description, would be immensely helpful.
But what the city hasn't done, and apparently isn't offering to do now, is to maintain some semblance of law and order in Washington. Providing for public safety is government's signal obligation, and as this controversy suggests, it is the District's failure. There is no excuse for it. Trying to hold cabbies responsible for the city's own dereliction by smearing them as racists is transparently unfair.
Of course, if the city can't do the job, it could allow cabbies to defend themselves. It could let cab drivers carry concealed weapons, as more than 30 states allow their own citizens to do. But up until now, District officials have been more concerned about maintaining tried-and-failed gun-control laws than about protecting the lives of cab drivers.
So having first failed to protect the drivers and then having refused to let them defend themselves, District officials are now calling them names and saying they need training? Please. Before the city lectures cab drivers on how to do their jobs again, it should try doing its own.

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