Undercover sting by black police officers prompts crackdown on racial bias by LAX cab drivers

Taxis pass through the central terminal area of Los Angeles International Airport.

Taxis pass through the central terminal area of Los Angeles International Airport.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A City Council committee moved Tuesday to tighten penalties for taxi drivers who face complaints of discrimination for refusing to pick up an airport passenger on the basis of race.

The action was spurred by a recent undercover operation by two black police officers, who found that taxi drivers rejected 20% of their requests for rides at LAX.

The committee that oversees trade and tourism suggested banning cab drivers from working the airport for a year if an investigation finds them guilty of racial discrimination against a potential passenger.


“The last thing we want is for our city to have any part in discrimination,” said Councilman Bob Blumenfield, who proposed the policy change. He also pushed to continue the undercover stings for a year to gather more robust data on racial discrimination.

The City Council will vote on the suggestions next week.

Lawmakers said the policy change was inspired by ESPN analyst Doug Glanville, who wrote an essay last fall for the Atlantic magazine’s website, saying a taxi driver refused to give him a ride because he is black.

Glanville recounted that at LAX in September a white co-worker approached a United Taxi driver and asked to go to a downtown hotel, while Glanville walked to the back of the cab to put his luggage in the trunk. When the driver saw Glanville, “he froze, and his entire demeanor shifted,” he wrote.

The essay stated that the driver repeatedly refused to take them to downtown, telling the pair to walk across the street and catch a bus. As they left to find another car, they watched the driver pick up a white passenger.

“Given the circumstances,” Glanville wrote, “it was hard to attribute his refusal to anything other than my race.”

In an interview with The Times, Glanville said he lodged his complaints with city officials calmly and deliberately because “this is a person’s livelihood.” His concern, he said, wasn’t specifically with the driver, but with systemic issues: Lax enforcement that encourages racism and bureaucratic barriers that discourage people from filing complaints when they experience discrimination.


“It’s one thing to be blown off on a snowy day on downtown Chicago, and you’re hailing outside,” Glanville said. “It’s another to be in a controlled environment, like an airport, where there are a thousand cameras everywhere. Clearly, he had to feel comfortable doing this.”

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The driver told investigators that “there was no racial aspect to his behavior,” and was only confused about which passengers were first in line, according to Los Angeles taxi administrator Tom Drischler.

In a separate investigation, airport officials who reviewed video footage of the incident decided that Glanville’s complaint “was substantiated.”

The driver was suspended from working citywide for two weeks and barred from working at the airport for a year.

Drischler said the investigation convinced him that racial discrimination among taxi drivers is “a systemic problem that needs to be dealt with as strongly as possible.”

The undercover investigation revealed that taxi drivers refused requests for rides from two black men five times out of 25 requests, airport officials said. In some cases, the taxi drivers may have refused the rides because they asked to go a short distance, a request that taxi drivers often dislike.

Drivers who refuse to carry passengers to cities near LAX, or berate them for living nearby, is the most common reason that customers complain to airport officials about taxi service, according to a two-year sample of complaints obtained by The Times.

Cab drivers, who are allowed to work at LAX once every five days, say they depend on lucrative, long-distance fares from the airport to cover driving expenses, including insurance premiums and rental fees for their dispatch systems.

“At every turn, it’s come to our attention that our policies need improvement,” Samson Mengistu, deputy executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Twitter: @laura_nelson


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