The last time Hafiz Sarfaraz’s cab would ever be flagged down was around 12:30am on May 8, 2013 in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia.
According to police reports, as the taxi driver pulled over, a pedestrian he thought was a potential customer proceeded to pull out a gun and try to rob him. Sarfaraz attempted to flee, but the suspect opened fire, hitting him five times before he crashed into a wall at 63rd and Walnut. His murder was never solved.
The former Upper Darby resident’s death elicited an outburst from taxi drivers all over the city, many of whom expressed fears they could suffer the same fate, and demanded more safety precautions.
Since that time, the PPA, which oversees Philly’s taxis, and drivers have come to a compromise: They plan to install cameras in cabs. If people know they’re being monitored, the logic goes, they’ll be less likely to use violence against drivers. Because right now, given the tens of thousands of private and public cameras all over the city, inside a cab is one of the increasingly rare places you can go in Philadelphia where you’re not on film.
“The levels of violence against taxicab drivers in Philadelphia is egregious,” wrote State Rep. Nick Miccarelli in an April 2014 letter to the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the state bureaucracy that holds the authority to change regulations directly overseen by state authorities. “If installing safety cameras helps to alleviate the hazards of this dangerous occupation, then I see no reason as to why cameras should not be installed.”
Similar camera systems have been installed in cabs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle. While some initial blowback over privacy concerns is likely, it’s worth noting that in Seattle, crimes against drivers actually dropped by 23 percent after all cabs were required to get cameras.
Most of the hurdles to put cameras into cabs have been met. The FOP favors the move as being helpful to the safety of first responders in taxi-based emergencies. On Thurs., July 24, the IRRC will meet to review—and likely rubber-stamp—the use of those PPA-approved cameras.
“If approved, this regulation will affect 3,700 taxi drivers and 700 medallion owners—all of whom will be required to comply with this regulation in terms of the system,” says David Sumner, the commission’s executive director.
But not everyone’s happy with this outcome. Some industry professionals believe the way the PPA is handling the camera issue could strengthen the entrenched advantages local cab companies have over independent drivers and next-generation car services.
See, the new regulation will allow the PPA to specify what approved camera systems cab owners may install. The two systems they’re backing—VerifEye, and 24/7 Security—both are compatible with the Verifone system that’s already installed in cabs throughout Philly; that’s the computer that routes your fare from the meter to the credit card reader, processes your payment and bombards you with TV clips while you sit in the backseat.
The Philadelphia Cab Association weighed in publicly on the proposed camera regs this spring, and found the cost of installing a camera system in a cab would be “no more than $400 or $500.” But more recent estimates from the IRRC put the installation of the VerifEye or 24/7 systems at more than double that: $1,200.
“Several taxi medallion owners are trying to consolidate the industry regarding leasing to drivers, dispatching, insurance, credit card processing, and now security cameras,” wrote Ron Blount, head of the Philadelphia Taxi Alliance, in a letter to the IRRC on April 25.
Blount says he believes a camera system should be left up to the driver to choose—or, at least, any mandated citywide system should put up for a bid, not just handed to a current vendor. “What we want to do is allow drivers or owners to go out and buy cameras and install them in cabs,” he says. “They could let [the PPA mandate] certain specifications for quality. But the Parking Authority is forcing the camera to go through the meter system. It’s controlled by Verifone, just like the credit card system. So the monopoly continues.”
David Alperstein, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association says his group (which represents medallion owners) are more concerned with requiring partitions between drivers and customers. “The partition is really where we think the preventative measure is. Of course, the safety of the drivers are of the utmost concern, so if cameras somehow help them, that’s great, too,” he says.
A spokesperson for the PPA did not respond by press time.
Blount is a supporter of new technologies like those used by the car service Uber, which he believes give more freedom to cab drivers themselves rather than the very few cab-owning dispatch companies, whose economic stranglehold over their drivers was examined in a PW series earlier this year.
If drivers and companies were allowed to shop around for cameras, he notes, many drivers—to whom the companies would likely push the cost—still wouldn’t have the cash to pay for installation up front. He foresees, therefore, a situation in which the dispatch companies and other medallion owners would pay for the camera, then add a $35-$40 weekly increase in the medallion lease that cabbies pay in order to drive. (This would not be official, of course; but many drivers allege they are forced to pay more for their medallion rentals each week than the PPA allows, and some worry cameras would up that already-bloated cost.)
While the IRRC holds the authority to approve or disapprove new regulations for state bureaucracies like the PPA, the commission doesn’t get any say in how that bureaucracy goes about implementing the regulations. Which means, once the IRRC gives cameras the official thumbs up, the details of how that’ll play out are all in the PPA’s hands.
Update: The IRRC approved the use of cameras in Philly cabs on Thursday, July 24. Randy LoBasso covered the meeting for Philadelphia Weekly's daily blog, PhillyNow. You can read about it here.