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Cabs Will Get Bullet-Resistant Shields

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since May 1, cabdrivers in Los Angeles have felt like targets in a shooting gallery. Three have died and at least four have been seriously hurt in a rash of violence that has driven some from the streets for good.

But a new device unveiled Friday by L.A. Taxi may help stop the bullets. The city’s largest cab company, with 315 vehicles, announced that it has begun installing $550 bullet-resistant windows in its taxis to separate drivers from passengers.

While some drivers complain that the bulky barriers will interfere with the day-to-day chatter that spices a cabby’s life, others are expressing relief that someone finally is doing something to protect them.

“This is not a panacea,” said Mitchell S. Rouse, president of Taxi Systems Inc., the parent company of L.A. Taxi. “It is not a Sherman tank, and it won’t stop every possible harm. But the primary problem the drivers had was assault from the back seat. You won’t have that with this.”

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If drivers request it, Taxi Systems also will install barriers in the 200 cabs used by its three other companies--Long Beach Yellow Cab, South Bay Yellow Cab and United Checkered Cab, Rouse said.

Mayor Tom Bradley, who appeared at the news conference called to introduce the device, said he has asked the city’s transportation commission to study the barrier and consider making it a mandatory feature for all Los Angeles taxis. The commission will begin holding public hearings later this month on how to improve taxi safety.

“Obviously it would be better if we lived in a time when no such protection was necessary. But we’re realists,” Bradley said.

About half of L.A. Taxi’s drivers have asked for the barriers so far, Rouse said.

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“Used to be, you very seldom heard of a driver being hurt,” said Benny Brown, 35, who has been driving a taxi for four years. “Nowadays, I don’t know if it’s drugs or what, but it’s becoming common. . . . The average guy who’s going to rob you wants to get behind you. He gets a gun to your head or a knife to your throat. I know he can’t do that if this is here.”

The barrier, installed behind the front seat, features a bullet-resistant sliding glass window that can be opened only from the driver’s side. A metal compartment is used to pass money back and forth without opening the window.

In some cities, such as Boston and New York, similar barriers already have become much-lauded mandatory taxi equipment.

“Not only have they stopped assaults and saved a lot of cabdrivers’ lives, they also stop casual altercations,” said Marty Callinan, president of the Independent Taxi Operators Assn. in Boston, where the barriers have been mandatory since 1969.

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Elsewhere, however, cabbies have concluded that the barriers are too awkward.

“They were at one point mandatory back in the 1960s, but that is no longer so,” said Connie Buscemi, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Consumer Services. “Cabdrivers and companies did not like them. They asked that the requirement be dropped.”

But the murder of a driver last week during an attempted robbery has renewed talk of making them mandatory again, she said.

Taxi industry leaders say the barriers are not foolproof.

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“In those cities where bulletproof shields are common, they clearly have not stopped the problem. Drivers are still getting killed,” said Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the Maryland-based International Taxicab and Livery Assn. “It’s my personal opinion that the shields don’t provide all that much protection. . . . I’ve seen lots of businessmen going around to the driver’s front window to pay the fare and that window, of course, is not bulletproof.

“We’re a target because we drive all night long,” LaGasse said. “Convenience stores and all-night gas stations are targets, too. . . . Crime is a real problem for us, but it’s a societal problem. I assume when society gets crime under control, we’ll get our crime against cabbies under control.”

Also on Friday, Herman Garvin, a cabdriver for 40 years, was honored by the Independent Taxi Owners Assn. for assisting police in arresting the man who is suspected of robbing and killing cabbie Titus Imaku on May 1. Garvin will be awarded a plaque, $25,000 and a trip to Las Vegas.


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