Tuesday, July 25, 2017 This Week's Paper

Cab drivers call foul on in-car cameras

Pierce County cab companies are making a last-ditch effort to find common ground with Tacoma officials over a move that will have security cameras in every cab by the end of the summer.

At issue is access and price.

“Why would we need to pay three times the cost and get less?” said

Daniel Sibbett, owner of Aloha Cab Company. “It just doesn’t make sense to pay all that money if it won’t do what we want it to do when there are better and cheaper ones out there that will. I don’t know. I don’t get it. But maybe I’m just a dumb island boy, but it doesn’t seem right.”

What he thought would be $1,500 to equip his five cabs will actually be $5,000 to install systems that meet the requirements laid out by the city.

A flashback is in order to get to the root of the problem.

Tacoma passed an ordinance that would require in-car cameras back in 2006, following the lead of Seattle and other cities around the nation, in an effort to control crime. The city rules also set operating and standards as a way to control crimes that were being phased as the years passed. The first vehicle inspections, for example, were conducted a year ago. The recession caused further inspection delays and enforcement requirements until this summer since the City Council opted to delay the tighter requirements out of “economic concern” for the drivers and the cab companies. That delay ended this summer when the city mailed out reminders in May about the required improvements – including the installation of in-car cameras -- and inspections set to start this month.

Sibbett doesn’t dispute the need for cameras since they would protect the drivers from robbery and other crimes committed by their passengers. His issue is one of cost and access. The city requires a system that costs about $900 and is only available through one vendor in Kent, while other models run as low as $300 and include more features. Tacoma’s code also only allows police to access the videos because the recording system will be locked under the dashboard with a law-enforcement-only key system. Sibbett wants a system that allows the cab companies to have access to the camera as well so they can use the images to warn drivers of problem passengers and for insurance claim documentation. Limiting the cameras, he said, would also drag out the time cabs would be out of service at a precinct instead of picking up fare-paying customers.

The city modeled its 2006 cab codes, which also include provisions for insurance, background checks for drivers and annual safety inspections, on similar codes in Seattle and other metro areas around the nation. The restriction to the cameras by only law enforcement officers was taken straight from Seattle, which added the tighter rules after a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union over privacy concerns, according to Tacoma’s Licensing Department. It’s that restricted access that adds cost to the cameras because the equipment must be securely fastened inside a tamper-proof box rather than just wired into the car’s electrical system.

The rules affect some 80 cabs that are licensed to operate within the city. Pierce County rules are less restrictive but officials from both governments are meeting to streamline the process so cabs have just one set of rules to follow.

Tacoma licensing officials are organizing a meeting with cab company owners and drivers in early September to discuss any future changes. Cabs have until Aug. 31 to have the cameras installed and inspected as part of their annual license renewal.