JACKSON HEIGHTS, Queens — NYPD detectives now search for suspects in two different, dangerous incidents that highlight that the car-for-hire business can be hazardous both for drivers of livery cabs, and for the people who inspect the cars. The two incidents also underscore a tension between drivers and inspectors that both sides say they're trying to decrease.
The first of the two incidents happened on January 24th in front of 2690 University Avenue in the Bronx. It was recorded on cellphone video and posted on YouTube. The video shows an attack by at least three people on a pair of inspectors from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, or TLC.
"They were surrounded by 20 people," described Frank Rella, a union delegate for TLC inspectors at Teamsters Local 237. He further described what the video captures -- an attack on the two inspectors by the group of what appear to be angry liver cab drivers.
"One driver took out a baseball bat, and smashed out the rear window," and slammed other windows of the inspectors' car as well, Rella said.
He added that inspectors could be very vulnerable due to a lack of protection. "They go out with no sidearm," said Rella, "nothing to protect them, but a baton. It's a very dangerous job."
He said that the union is considering a meeting with city officials in order to "have conversations about maybe arming them."
Livery drivers, meanwhile, suggested another tool.
"Body cams on TLC inspectors," said Fernando Mateo, the executive director of the New York Federation of Taxi Drivers. It's an advocacy organization for livery cab drivers.
Mateo pointed out, at a news conference outside a TLC inspection facility here, that the attacks on inspectors, along with another recent incident, show that there's a threat of violence against both inspectors and drivers.
Last Saturday, near East Gun Hill Road and Putnam Place, in the Williamsbridge section of the borough, a woman and a man held a knife to a livery driver's throat and robbed him. Surveillance video from the cab's camera showed the woman taking the driver's iPad. Her accomplice stole $250 in cash from the driver.
"This is something that the drivers face every single day," said Mateo. "They're a target of anyone that wants [or] needs money immediately."
To promote drivers' safety, he said, he and a group of drivers met with the head of inspections at the TLC on Wednesday afternoon. Mateo said that his group proposed that inspectors occasionally ride along with drivers to get a better sense of the challenges drivers face. They also asked that drivers not be fined for every infraction.
"We want inspectors to give them a warning" for a first offense, Mateo said, rather than a fine, which can sometimes be more than a thousand dollars, even for a first offense.
In the incident on January 24th, when drivers attacked a TLC inspection vehicle, the inspectors had just pulled over an elderly driver who was operating a vehicle as a car-for-hire without a permit, according to both TLC sources and Mateo.
Other drivers apparently surrounded the inspectors' vehicle out of anger, and attacked. Both Mateo and the TLC said that there was no excuse for such actions.
"Violence against TLC officers will not be tolerated," said Allan Fromberg, deputy TLC commissioner for public affairs. "Illegal street hails pose a danger to the public and undermine the work of legitimate for-hire drivers. TLC will continue to enforce New York City's laws against this dangerous activity."
Mateo's reaction was to the point."Turn yourselves in," he told the attackers.