Cabdrivers call for action on robberies

Frank Chukwu , waiting for a fare at 30th Street Station, is scared when he hears of robberies, but said: "We are making a living from driving a cab. That will not stop us." RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Frank Chukwu , waiting for a fare at 30th Street Station, is scared when he hears of robberies, but said: "We are making a living from driving a cab. That will not stop us." RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 24, 2013

It was just a nine-block route for taxi driver Abdul Jalloh: 48th and Baltimore to 47th and Locust. Simple enough.

But the ninth block became a 10th when the passenger called for a right turn onto Locust, and an 11th with the left onto Farragut Avenue.

And the short late-night cab ride through West Philadelphia became an armed robbery when a handgun poked through the partition and rested on Jalloh's neck.

"This guy is going to kill me," Jalloh thought. Then he made a move.

He grabbed the gun and forced it away from him. "Don't shoot," he screamed amid the struggle. "Tell me what you want and I'll give it to you."

The gun fired, the bullet grazing Jalloh's left index finger and right thumb.

He handed over about $100, his cellphone, and car keys - but not the cab itself. The man fled. Jalloh was back on the night shift two days later.

Those shifts weren't the same, though. "It's haunting me," Jalloh said.

Three weeks later - and more than two months after a cabbie was killed in a similar robbery in West Philadelphia - some cabdrivers and owners are calling for action.

A combination of "trouble lights," cameras, permanently closed partitions, and other measures would better protect drivers, the various groups agree.

Yet little has been done. And neither the drivers' and owners' associations nor the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates city cabs, is willing to own the impasse.

The Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association, which represents medallion owners and dispatchers, is calling on the Parking Authority to adopt and enforce five regulations. The PPA says that it is open to each and that reform is on the way. But it hasn't happened.

The Taxi Association had a speaker at the PPA board meeting last month, but it failed to make specific proposals, a Parking Authority spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA), which represents the drivers, blames the PPA. The PPA has not responded to three requests to meet with the union, according to its president, Ronald Blount.

"For some reason, they don't think drivers merit their attention," Blount said. Blount said he would appear at the Parking Authority's regular meeting Tuesday.

Parking Authority spokesman Marty O'Rourke disputed that characterization.

The authority has taken "concrete steps" to improve driver safety, such as mandatory safety training and GPS installation, he said. The PPA is not ignoring drivers, O'Rourke said, but is trying to convene a larger meeting with all "interested parties."

O'Rourke declined to say why regulations had not been changed but said to expect tangible change by the end of the summer.

A potential hurdle may be the divergent priorities of the owners and dispatchers, and the drivers.

The medallion owners want installation of mandatory "trouble lights" on vehicles that can signal danger; panic buttons that would connect endangered drivers with Philadelphia police; public-service announcements denouncing violence against taxi drivers; courses on self-defense and driver safety sponsored by the PPA; and the requirement that partitions between passengers and drivers remain shut.

Changes such as keeping partitions shut do not require PPA action and could be accomplished by the organizations themselves, according to O'Rourke.

Absent from the owners' priorities is the activation of cameras that are in place on the GPS monitors at the front of each vehicle, as well as on the backside of the partition, facing the backseat. That is one of the TWA's priorities. Cameras could help catch - and perhaps deter - criminals attacking drivers, said Blount, who represents the drivers.

O'Rourke questioned whether the existing cameras could do the job. And Taxi Association executive director David Alperstein said more research needed to be done on the effectiveness of cameras before the organization would advocate for it.

Having two different organizations advocate for overlapping, but not identical, platforms complicates the process, O'Rourke said. Some parts of the taxi industry have opposed changes PPA designed to enhance safety, he said.

"It does get confusing because they're not speaking with one voice," he noted.

As fingers point and tempers flare, cabbies drive on.

In addition to the shooting of Jalloh on June 27 and the fatal shooting of Hafiz Sarfaraz early May 8, three other drivers have been assaulted and four have been robbed over the last six months, according to the Taxi Association.

On Monday, two men wanted for a June 4 armed robbery in East Mount Airy that left a driver critically injured exchanged gunfire with police officers and FBI agents. One suspect was killed, the other wounded.

Taxi organizations say this year's violence against cabdrivers is an uptick, and Sarfaraz's death was the first homicide involving a taxicab since 2008.

The perceived threat is placing some taxi drivers on high alert. About half of the 15 drivers interviewed this month, however, said they had not heard about the cabbie-related violence.

Frank Chukwu has been driving a cab for 10 years, including many night shifts. The violence scares Chukwu, but not enough to take him off the road.

"Any time we hear about shootings, it's scary," Chukwu said outside 30th Street Station last week. "We are making a living from driving a cab. That will not stop us."

But taxi drivers have to expect violence at anytime, said Wadeh Hammad, who has been driving cabs for five years. In some parts of Philadelphia, Hammad won't pick up any passengers, out of fear. Other drivers said they did similar profiling, though it is against PPA regulations.

Veteran cabdriver Teddy Williams agreed that potential violence was everywhere, but was more skeptical about the effectiveness of potential changes, such as cameras or a permanently closed partition. The only thing cabbies can do is "walk with your instincts."

"If people are going to commit crime, they don't give a heck about the camera," he said.

Williams scoffed at the idea that a partition or a more effective panic button system would matter.

"Come on," he said. "We've got to protect ourselves."


Contact Theodore Schleifer at 215-854-5607, tschleifer@phillynews.com, or follow @teddyschleifer on Twitter.

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