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Robbery of Taxi Drivers

Guide No.34 (2005)

by Martha J. Smith

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The Problem of Robbery of Taxi Drivers

The guide begins by describing the problem and reviewing factors that increase the risks of robbery of taxi drivers. The guide then identifies a series of questions that might assist you in analyzing your local taxi robbery problem. Finally, the guide reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

One of the biggest barriers to understanding the problem of taxi driver robbery is the lack of data specifically collected on this crime. Most police departments do not record the circumstances surrounding a robbery incident in a way that allows taxi robberies to be identified easily. Much of what is known about taxi robbery is based on information recorded on assaults and homicides by occupation.† These data consistently show that, as an occupation or industry, taxi drivers have the highest or among the highest risk of job-related homicide and assault.1 Robbery is the motive for more than half of all work-related homicides (80 percent) and non-fatal assaults (60 percent).2 A U.S. study that did look at robbery victimization data by occupation also found that taxi drivers were among those most often robbed. 3

† No studies focused specifically on taxi driver victimization have been carried out in the United States though such research has been done in Australia (Mayhew, 1999; Haines, 1997; Keatsdale Pty. Ltd., 1995), Canada (Stenning, 1996), the United Kingdom (Westmarland and Anderson, 2001; Smith, forthcoming) and the Netherlands (Elzinga, 1996). Mayhew (2000b) provides a comprehensive review of the studies that have looked at taxi driver assaults.

Even the information that is available, however, is likely to be incomplete. 4Many drivers work as independent contractors and, as such, may not be eligible for workers compensation (one of the main data sources for studies of occupational assault). More importantly, the structure of compensation for services in the industry (where time off means no income) decreases the incentive drivers might otherwise have to report crimes to the police or other official sources. That may be especially true if drivers see the crime as relatively minor, they do not think the police can do anything about it, or they think that the police will not take their crime problems seriously.† The problem of under-reporting may be particularly acute in relation to attempted robberies since these are likely to be seen by drivers as less severe incidents. However, attempted robberies may be particularly useful to understand when developing problem-solving strategies since they were successfully disrupted for some reason.

† If police do not take crimes seriously, then this may lead to additional problems. For example, Mayhew (1999) noted the belief among some drivers that police failure to take small fare evasions seriously may embolden offenders and lead to more serious incidents with drivers.

To understand taxi robberies it is necessary to understand the industry in which cab drivers operate. The compensation that drivers receive is related to the number of fares they have in a given shift, the distance they travel, the amount of tips they receive, and the costs of the vehicle (and any fees paid for access to fares via radio dispatch, if they use this service). Robbery depletes driver revenue and has the potential for injury and death. Therefore, drivers must continually balance the competing concerns of increasing revenue through accepting fares and of risking potential revenue loss (and potential physical harm). Knowing how the taxi industry is organized in a particular locality is an important first step in developing a taxi driver robbery problem-solving strategy related to that place.

In general, there are two different types of taxi services:

  • "Hackney" cabs that can pick up fares off the street or from taxi stands. (This type of service is also referred to as "ply-for-hire" service, "medallion" cabs in New York City, or some other term related to the color of the vehicles, such as "black cabs" in London.)
  • "Livery" cabs that must be booked through a central dispatching office. (This service is also known under a variety of local names, such as "mini-cabs" in London and "car services" in the New York metropolitan area.)

†† The term "gypsy cab," which historically has been limited to services that operate without the needed licenses in an area, is increasingly being used in New York City to refer to livery services (Marosi, n.d.).

Problem-solvers need to look at the types of services offered in the community in order to look for patterns of offending. Some patterns may be typical for only one set of drivers, if more than one type of service operates in that area, particularly if prevention techniques and equipment differ among the different types of services or ownership relationships.†

† The recent drop in the level of homicides among livery drivers in New York City (Luo, 2004) may be an example of how the prevention equipment on different types of taxi services can affect the victimization patterns of drivers. In the early 1990s yellow cab drivers and livery drivers in fleets were required to have bulletproof partitions in their cabs. Homicides among these drivers dropped following this initiative (Marosi, n.d.). Livery drivers who were owner-drivers were not required to have bulletproof partitions in their cabs until 2000 when the regulations changed following a spate of murders of livery drivers. With this new initiative, all livery drivers were required to install partitions or surveillance cameras. Establishing a direct link between the requirement for new equipment and the drop in homicides among livery drivers is difficult to do unambiguously, however, since other initiatives (such as increased use of decoy officers, targeting of taxi robbery locations, use of special decals that allow police to stop drivers without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, and tougher sentencing laws) were also in place. In 2001, a program was also started in New York City to install emergency contact systems in yellow and livery cabs using global positioning satellite technology and cell phone links (Mayersohn, 2001).

In general, there are two types of vehicle-driver ownership relationships:

  • The owner-driver—where the driver of the vehicle also owns the cab. Owner-drivers may operate without a radio or may lease radio and radio-dispatch services from a company that handles telephone bookings.
  • The driver-lessee—where the driver leases the vehicle from the owner. Leasing arrangements may be very different in different locations and may result in a variety of pressures and constraints on drivers and owners. Drivers may lease their vehicles full-time or by shifts, may not drive the same vehicle for each shift, and may receive all of the proceeds of their fares or only a percentage. Drivers without full control over their vehicles may not be able to determine the types of safety equipment that are present in their cabs. Owners, on the other hand, may have a few cabs or may operate large fleets of vehicles. The different situations of owners may influence their ability or willingness to purchase expensive safety features, such as driver screens, digital cameras, and global positioning satellite technology. However, the size of the owner's fleet may not necessarily determine whether equipment is installed. For example, economies of scale may make some owners more likely to install certain equipment while others may operate in a monopoly situation and decide such expenditures are not necessary.

Taxi services are usually regulated by some governmental or quasi-governmental body.† Both hackney and livery services may be regulated by the same oversight agency. Common regulatory features of these agencies include:

† One oversight model is illustrated by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (see www.nyc.gov/html/tlc/html/home/home.shtml) while another model involves the direct control of taxi services by the local police department, as found in Boston with the Hackney Carriage Unit.

  • Setting fares
  • Licensing drivers and vehicles (including regulating the number of vehicles within particular areas)
  • Controlling the conditions of vehicles
  • Monitoring the behavior of drivers.

Police departments may try to set up partnerships among regulatory agencies and industry representatives (including radio-dispatching companies, owners, associations of owners, drivers, driver associations, and labor unions) to help implement problem-solving initiatives.†† The partners in the problem-solving process may need to understand both how the industry is regulated in an area and the context in which past regulation was implemented before they can begin to assess the best responses to current problems.

†† Examples of partnerships involving taxi representatives can be found in Melbourne, Australia (Taxi Driver Safety Committee, 1996), Manitoba, Canada (Manitoba Taxicab Board, 1991), and Manchester, England (Manchester City Council, 2003). While the Manchester partnership has focused on late-night city center travel and disorder problems, rather than robbery, it is an example of the type of partnership initiative that has developed under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 directing local governmental authorities in England and Wales to set up crime and disorder partnerships with the police and other agencies, audit local crime, set up strategic plans to address these problems, and carry them out (see, e.g., Home Office, 1998).

Related Problems

This guide focuses on robbery of taxi drivers. It does not address crimes by taxi drivers against passengers or other drivers.††† In addition, it does not attempt to address fully the following crimes against drivers:

††† Sexual assaults on women have been the focus of a large number of enforcement initiatives in London recently under the Project Sapphire umbrella (see www.met.police.uk/sapphire/).

  • Homicide
  • Assault
  • Threats of physical violence
  • Verbal aggression or harassment
  • Hate speech
  • Fare evasion
  • Vandalism.

It also does not include robbery involving delivery services of perishable items, such as pizzas or Chinese food, or of valuables, such as cash.

While robbery is the primary motive for many attacks and resulting injuries across all occupations, 5this finding may be location-specific for taxi drivers. 6Some research in Australia 7and Britain 8has found that alcohol plays a role in driver assaults, but it is not clear that these assaults are primarily a subset of robbery-related assaults nor how prevalent they are compared to robbery-motivated assaults. Some drivers have suggested that driver behavior, such as over-charging, taking the long way around, and aggression or rudeness, may lead to aggression by passengers. 9It is unclear whether, or how often, this aggression escalates into a later robbery event or whether other types of verbal harassment or hate speech are related to taxi driver robbery. There is some evidence, however, that driver pursuit of fare evaders can result in robbery. 10 Policing agencies may, therefore, find it useful to look carefully at a variety of incidents involving taxi drivers in order to understand the taxi robbery problems in their area.

Policing agencies seeking to limit the number of taxi driver robberies in their area need to try to understand where the links between crimes can be made, as well as how the series of actions in a robbery crime "script"† develop and how they relate to prevention schemes. For example, prevention measures, such as safety shields between drivers and passengers, designed to help prevent one type of crime (robbery) may also help prevent other crimes (homicides and assaults). Yet, drivers in some areas have been concerned that they may depersonalize them or go against a culture that prizes friendliness, banter, and lack of social divisions. 11 This might result in lower tips and possibly increased fare evasion and vandalism. If these unwanted consequences do not materialize, then it may be easier for drivers to accept the prevention measures against the rarer robbery event. Thus, police agencies seeking to understand a local taxi driver robbery problem may wish to monitor other offenses against drivers both before and after implementing new prevention initiatives.

† A crime "script" is a shorthand term developed to help describe the stages in an unfolding crime event, similar to the "modus operandi" (Cornish,1994).

Factors Contributing to Robbery of Taxi Drivers

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Taxi drivers are at risk of robbery due to a combination of factors related to the nature of their job:

  • They have contact with a large number of strangers or people they do not know well.
  • They often work in high-crime areas.
  • They usually carry cash with them in an unsecured manner and handle money as payment.
  • They usually work alone.
  • They often go to, or through, isolated locations.
  • They often work late at night or early in the morning.

These risk factors, among others, have been mentioned in a number of studies of workplace homicide and violence in general. 12

Not all places pose the same degree of danger in relation to these factors, nor do all drivers have the same degree of exposure to these risk factors. For example, even within a given locality, there may be a great deal of variability in the designs and features of the vehicles themselves. Some cabs may be purpose-built vehicles,† equipped with driver safety screens, radios, charge card machines, global positioning satellite (GPS) tracking, and digital infrared cameras. Other cabs in that area may have none of these features.

† Purpose-built vehicles are those designed specifically for use as taxicabs, such as Checker cabs and the London cab.

One study in Australia found that robberies were most likely to be carried out by young men who were inebriated and hailed the cab from the street or taxi stands . 13 In other places, robberies may be most likely to follow calls to dispatchers by women, with drivers arriving to find a man with a gun and no women. 14 Drivers must be made aware of the common patterns for robberies in their area, but should also be aware that they may not always be able to identify potential robbers or robbery situations before the event unfolds.

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