In Denver Taxis, Extra Eyes On The Street For Police

Mar 7, 2012

Some days, it would be easy to mistake the Metro Taxi dispatch center in Denver for a police station. Traffic and crime incidents are recorded in a special logbook, as drivers call in descriptions and locations to police.

It's part of a program called Taxis on Patrol. Just a day after the program began, a cab driver helped police make an arrest for a fatal hit-and-run. In the months since, eyewitness calls from cabbies using a bulletin system similar to an Amber Alert have led to hundreds of arrests.

"They're in places at times in which police officers aren't," says Larry Stevenson, the cab company's communications manager. "We have assaults, we have domestic violences being reported, we have hit-and-runs, we have drunk drivers."

After a hit-and-run driver struck and killed a 42-year-old pedestrian across town, police sent out an emergency bulletin that shows up on digital highway signs and on the fare screens of hundreds of taxis throughout the city.

"As you see in this particular box right here, a message will come up," explains longtime Denver cab driver Teddy Johnson. He is keeping his eyes peeled for a white GMC van with tinted windows. "They said it was going south," he says.

Johnson is not law enforcement, but drivers like him have gone through safety training and gotten certified. At first he was skeptical about putting the bright Taxis on Patrol sticker in his back window.

"You know, I had this thing where, you know, hey, I don't want that put on my cab, you know, people in the neighborhoods calling you snitch," Johnson says. "I had to get past that point. My heart is good, and I look for good and right in life."

Johnson doesn't see the white van. But he has recently reported two incidents — one involving a father and son who got into his cab in the middle of the day.

"The father was like 75 years old, couldn't hardly walk," Johnson remembers. "And when he opened up the garage to this condo, all I seen was nothing but Bud Light cases, and empty cases of hard alcohol and pizza boxes, and both of these guys came out and couldn't hardly walk. They was very smelly."

Johnson won an award for notifying police that the men's health and safety were at risk. Since Taxis on Patrol began, more than a thousand calls have come in, ranging from serious crimes to humanitarian concerns.

"I think it'll make communities safer as a result of this 'Neighborhood Watch on Wheels,' if you will," Denver Police Cmdr. Tony Lopez says. He says in this era of tight city budgets, partnering with the private sector to keep the streets safer makes sense.

"Actually, it's serving as a force multiplier for us in the delivery of services and public safety," Lopez says.

And because of that, it's hard to find somebody who doesn't speak highly of the program, except maybe criminals. Lopez says he would like to see the program expand to UPS drivers and truckers.

In northeast Denver, cabbie Teddy Johnson is just about to pick up a truck driver who needs a ride to get a prescription filled. Robert Ellis, the trucker, hasn't heard of Taxis on Patrol, but he says he'd be a willing participant.

"I see people DUI, or I see anything, oh yeah, I call 911 in a heartbeat," Ellis says, and Johnson agrees.

But for now, the taxi concept is taking off. Other cities across the country are now certifying cabbies under the program's safety training. It's also being developed abroad, in South Africa and Australia.

Copyright 2012 KUNC-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kunc.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you think about it, cops and cabbies have a lot in common. They cruise the streets at night, deal with unsavory characters, frequent coffee shops. Now they're teaming up in Denver with a program called Taxis on Patrol. Eyewitness calls from taxi drivers use a bulletin system similar to an Amber Alert. And they have led to hundreds of arrests. Here's Kirk Siegler of member station KUNC.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Now, the last call we had for you...

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Some days, it'd be easy to mistake the Metro Taxi dispatch center in northeast Denver for a police station.

LARRY STEVENSON: They will record the incident here in the Taxis on Patrol log book.

SIEGLER: This is the cab company's communications manager, Larry Stevenson. He says his drivers call in good descriptions and good locations to police.

STEVENSON: They're in places at times in which police officers aren't. We have assaults. We have domestic violences being reported. We have hit and runs.

SIEGLER: It's a hit and run that's the priority today, since a driver has struck and killed a pedestrian across town.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tonight a 42-year-old man was trying to cross the street here from that EZ Pawn you see.

SIEGLER: TV news crews scrambled to the scene after police sent out an emergency bulletin that shows up on digital highway signs and on the fare screens of hundreds of taxis throughout the city.

TEDDY JOHNSON: As you see in this particular box right here, a message will come up. I'll show you one of the messages.

SIEGLER: So today longtime Denver cab driver, Teddy Johnson, knows to keep his eyes peeled for a white GMC van with tinted windows.

JOHNSON: They said it was going south.

SIEGLER: Now, to be clear, Johnson's not law enforcement, but drivers like him have gone through safety training and gotten certified. At first he was skeptical about putting the bright Taxis on Patrol sticker in his back window.

JOHNSON: You know, I had this thing where, you know, hey, I don't want that putting on my cab, you know. This kind of people in the neighborhoods, you know, they calling you snitch, you know. I had to get past that point, you know. My heart is good, and I look for good and right in life, you know.

SIEGLER: Spoiler alert, we don't see the white van. But Johnson has recently reported two incidents: one involving a father and son who got into his cab in the middle of the day.

JOHNSON: The father was like 75 years old, couldn't hardly walk. And when he opened up the garage to this condo, all I seen was nothing but Bud Light cases and empty cases of hard alcohol and pizza boxes. And both of these guys came out, couldn't hardly walk and they was very smelly.

SIEGLER: Johnson won an award for notifying police that the men's own health and safety were at risk.

Since Taxis on Patrol began, more than a thousand calls have come in, ranging from serious crimes to humanitarian concerns.

TONY LOPEZ: I think it'll make communities safer as a result of this Neighborhood Watch on wheels, if you will.

SIEGLER: Denver Police commander Tony Lopez says in this era of tight city budgets, partnering with the private sector to keep the streets safer makes sense.

LOPEZ: Actually, it's serving as a force multiplier for us, in the delivery of services and public safety.

SIEGLER: And because of that it's hard to find somebody who doesn't speak highly of the program, except maybe criminals. Lopez says he'd like to see Taxis on Patrol expand to UPS drivers and truckers.

JOHNSON: We're at Martin Luther King and Holly.

SIEGLER: Back in northeast Denver, as it happens, cabbie Teddy Johnson is just about to pick up a truck driver who needs a ride to get a prescription filled.

JOHNSON: Where you heading to Robert?

ROBERT ELLIS: Wal-Mart.

JOHNSON: OK. Wally world.

SIEGLER: Robert Ellis hasn't heard of Taxis on Patrol. But he says he'd be a willing participant.

ELLIS: I see people DUI or I see anything, oh yeah, I call 911 in a heartbeat.

JOHNSON: Uh-huh.

ELLIS: In a heartbeat.

JOHNSON: But for now, just the taxis concept is taking off. Other cities across the country are now certifying cabbies under the program's safety training. It's also being developed abroad, in South Africa and Australia.

SIEGLER: For NPR News, I'm Kirk Siegler in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.