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Cabbie's February death prompts call to install cameras in taxis

The Portland City Council plans to consider an ordinance requiring installation of a digital camera in every taxi in Portland.

Taxi cameras would deter crime and give prosecutors a new tool for charging those who commit them, said city Commissioner Randy Leonard, who's spearheading the proposal.

'If there's a camera in the cab, we're at a minimum going to deter people from doing crimes,' Leonard said. 'And if they do, we'll have a picture of them.'

The move comes in the wake of the Feb. 16 shooting death of Grigory Rogozhnikov in Northeast Portland. A driver for Broadway Cab, he was the first cabbie killed in Portland since Feb. 5, 2000.

The ordinance is still being written, but plans call for paying for the cameras by doubling the $35 annual license fee drivers pay. The money also would maintain the camera system, establish driver safety programs and create a database of crimes against drivers.

The city considered requiring a global positioning system, which allows cab companies to immediately locate cabs and deploy their fleet. That's been set aside, though. The system, for one thing, is expensive. Radio Cab installed one last year at a cost of $1 million Ñ way too spendy for small cab companies. But technology may soon bring the cost down, Leonard said.

So Portland seems ready to settle on cameras, which would cost $600 to $800 per cab.

Taxi cameras became popular a decade ago in Australia and have spread to Canada and the United States. Today they can be found in several American cities, including Houston, San Francisco and New York City. Cab cameras and GPS helped contribute to a 50 percent drop in cab crime in Toronto, where photos of suspects are routinely posted on a Crime Stoppers Web site.

Pictures help in many ways

Portland police don't keep statistics on crimes against taxi drivers but said the most common crime is a 'no-pay,' when a passenger runs off without paying. Violent crimes, including robbery and assault, are not frequent, and homicides are rare.

Police said they welcome any crime fighting tool, be it a deterrent or something to help prosecutors.

'The reality is that if a person is intent on harming you, there's no type of safety device that can get the police there in 10 or 15 seconds,' said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, Portland police spokesman.

How much of a deterrent are cameras? The evidence is mostly anecdotal. Matthew Daus, chairman of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, tells the story of a passenger who argued with a driver about the fare until the driver said he had the passenger's picture.

'Said dispute over,' Daus said. 'Just like that.'

In 2000, New York offered drivers $325 toward either a camera or a bullet resistant partition. Most bought partitions because they're cheaper. No New York taxi driver has been killed since January 1997, Daus said.

Some systems are sophisticated and feed a video signal to a master control room. Portland's more modest plans call for a camera that's activated when a passenger opens the door and then takes a picture every five seconds.

The images would be stored on a disc hidden someplace in the cab. If needed, the photos would be downloaded with a laptop computer. If not needed, new photos would override the old. A disc could hold about 30 days' worth of photos, Leonard said.

Drivers defeat rate increases

At first, Leonard wanted to pay for cameras by raising taxi rates. But at a tense meeting earlier this month at the Radio Cab offices, drivers balked at a rate increase. The recession is bad enough, they told him, and rate increases bring down business for a few months.

'No one's getting rich out there,' said John Hamilton, the city's taxi supervisor. 'Business is really down. Airport business is down. Restaurant business is down. When the economy suffers so does the taxi industry. They're having a very hard time making a living.'

Portland has 789 licensed cabbies, and many have mixed feelings. They've seen this before. The city gets all stirred up after a cabbie gets shot with talk of safety steps and prevention programs. But most of the time nothing much comes of it.

Drivers seem generally OK with the license fee increase, said Bob Wagner, a driver for Radio Cab and the driver representative on the city's Private for Hire Transportation Board of Review, which oversees taxis.

'Most of them will probably go along with it after they look at it,' he said. 'There's a fair amount of reluctance out there. But I think it will make us safer.'

Contact Don Hamilton atThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..