It’s Time to Inspect D.C.’s Hack Inspectors

Yesterday, Jim Epstein of Reason TV and I were arrested at a public meeting of the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC). The meeting was held at the U.S. Park Police headquarters. Somehow, Park Police officers got roped into becoming the DCTC’s armed security and both Epstein and I have been charged by the Park Police with “Unlawful Entry/Remaining” and “Disorderly Conduct.” Our “crime”? Taking pictures or video.

Less than an hour into the public meeting, a hack (taxi) inspector – with “K. Bears #17″ written on his shirt – told me I couldn’t take pictures. He stood in my way to ensure that I didn’t photograph the DCTC commissioners on the dais. I settled on taking a photo of him instead. Not long after, things went haywire.

“I am troubled by actions taken by the [DCTC],” wrote Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells in a strongly worded letter to Attorney General Irvin Nathan. “While the details are unclear, following a request of DCTC members or staff, two armed Park Police officers entered the auditorium, put a reporter in handcuffs, and removed him from the room. This was reportedly for taking photographs or making a video recording of the proceedings at an open and public meeting.”

As I sat in the front row recording the testimony of Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities, two Park Police officers approached me. “You can come with me or you can get locked up,” said one.

“You cannot stop a reporter from [recording]. That’s outrageous,” responded Dickson. Despite the protests of the approximately 200 people in attendance, I was hauled away. Washington Post columnist John Kelly, who was present, wrote, “suddenly, a clot of Park Police officers frogmarched Tucker out of the auditorium.” Epstein caught it all on video, which led to his being placed in the jail cell next to me.

“The folks at the D.C. Taxicab Commission and the U.S. Park Police have got some splainin’ to do [regarding the arrest of] two reporters… during a DCTC meeting for, you know, reporting,” wrote City Paper‘s Alan Suderman. “Is it a public meeting or not?” asked NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood.

Speaking to Martin Austermuhle of dcist.com, Johnny Barnes, executive director of the ALCU of the Nation’s Capital, said, “We find the actions of the Taxicab Commission to be kind of strange.”

The DCTC has a history of doing strange things, particularly Interim Chair Dena Reed. At DCTC’s March meeting, then-General Counsel Reed attempted to ban Fox5 photojournalist Jason Smith from recording. “If the cameras don’t leave the room, we’re not going to have the meeting,” said Reed, who was overruled by then-Chair Leon Swain.

As interim chair, with no one above her, Reed has gone even further. A notice posted on the DCTC walls before the May meeting read, “NO TELEVISION CAMERAS. NO VIDEO TAPING. NO AUDIO TAPING. The subject of the hearing was Ms. Reed’s attempted rewrite of Title 31, the regulatory code that governs the taxicab industry.

Drivers, concerned that the proposed changes to Title 31 will put many of them out of business, attempted to submit a petition with more than 900 signatures. Instead of accepting it, the DCTC pushed drivers out, locked the doors, turned the lights off, called the police, and referred to the drivers as “a mob.”

The DCTC is badly in need of reform. And it’s not just the leadership. Taxi drivers describe widespread mistreatment by hack inspectors, who appear to face little to no consequences for their actions.

The answer, though, is not to abolish the DCTC, as some have called for. Instead, the DCTC should be strengthened and brought into compliance with the 1985 Taxicab Commission Establishment Act which calls for three industry representatives to be on the DCTC. Presently, there are none.

If drivers are included in the political process many issues can be solved before they erupt into a public spectacle. Take, for example, drivers’ response to Dickson’s testimony. The Small Business Association of DC Taxicab Drivers, an umbrella organization representing some 4,000 drivers, is setting up a meeting with Dickson to figure out how to deal with the serious problem of drivers not stopping for those with service animals.

Lastly, there’s no way to explain how so many hard-working, decent people can be excluded from the political process – at times targeted by it – without talking about racism and xenophobia. It took two reporters being arrested to draw attention to the DCTC’s misdeeds. But for years, countless drivers have been raising these concerns.

Maybe it’s time we listen.

Sunday on The Voice of DC Cab Drivers we’ll discuss Wednesday’s DCTC meeting in more detail. (WUST 1120 AM, Sundays from 7-8:00 p.m.)

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