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©1999 - 2012
Edward D. Reuss
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NEW YORK CITY TAXI DRIVER

"Moonlighting" was verboten back in 1968. New York City cops were forbidden to work off duty jobs. There were many reasons given for this policy. I agreed with the theory that once a cop took an off-duty job, he or she couldn't be an effective cop anymore. Police work is not just a "job". It's a profession. That's why police officers must be well paid. They must be wholly committed to their chosen vocation in police work.

They were killing too many taxi drivers back then. The newspapers featured photos of the murdered cabbies hanging out of their taxicabs. Many of the taxis in the late 60s were independently owned and operated. The cost of a medallion for a taxi was an expensive proposition, but the owner could have a level of independence that other jobs didn't offer. Most of the driver's back then were good at their work. Street cops with smarts looked at taxi drivers as allies in their work. Why? Cops on patrol back in the 60s didn't have portable radios, so it was difficult to call for assistance. There were far less radio cars on patrol. Many cops walked foot patrol in Manhattan or were "flying" to demonstrations, strike posts, or the innumerable Division "details" that required cops to travel outside their usual precincts. In many situations, taxi drivers would assist cops in trouble. Their presence throughout the city at all hours was indeed an asset to the police. In many cases, cops would "commandeer" a passing taxi to give chase or respond to the scene of a "10-13".

The homicides of so many cabbies led to pressure for a change in policy for off-duty employment for cops. The leaders of the Taxi Industry appealed to the NYPD to deal with the rash of murders. In response, cops were to be allowed to "moonlight" as taxi drivers. They would have to apply for a hack license like everybody else. The Taxi Industry installed plastic partitions behind the driver's seat in all the cabs. This helped a great deal in protecting the drivers.

When the orders came down permitting off-duty work, I jumped at the chance to earn some extra money. I applied for my hack license and got a job with Joe Acierno's fleet of cabs in Brooklyn. I quickly found that I liked the work. The independence of driving a cab without supervision appealed to me. I would pick up a cab at four or five in the afternoon and work until two in the morning.

Driving a taxi was an eye-opener for me as a cop. After a few months of moonlighting as a cab driver, I must have been in every precinct in Manhattan, the Bronx, and most of Brooklyn and Queens. I got to go into areas that I would never have seen. The customers that I picked up ranged from well-known actors and the wealthy to hookers and criminals.

Anyone who has worked a taxi in New York City during the nighttime is very familiar with fear. The Medallion Taxi Cab licensed by the NY Taxi and Limousine Commission must have the roof light of the cab illuminated with the medallion number when it is unoccupied. Cabbies are prohibited from refusing to transport a customer anywhere in the City of New York. Criminals know this as well as the law- abiding citizens. Once a criminal entered the taxicab, the driver was in a bad position.

One dreary and rainy night, I was working in Manhattan. It was late and I was just getting ready to quit when they jumped into the cab as I was stopped at a traffic light. The back doors of the cab are usually unlocked as each fare leaves the taxicab. I would usually hit the "off-duty" light and lock the doors when I was finished working. They were two "mutts" for sure. They jumped in and I could feel their eyes burning into the back of my head as I entered the fare information in my trip log. I closed the lid of the cigar box that I used for my small change. I kept the box on the front seat. Large bills I kept safely hidden..

"Where to?" I asked.

"Brooklyn". One of them answered.

"Where in Brooklyn?"

"Just go down the FDR to the Brooklyn Bridge", he mumbled. "We don't know the name of the street, we'll let you know when we get there."

They sat in silence during the trip down the FDR. I glanced at them in the rear view mirror. Their eyes had that deadly stare of the predator. But they knew something was wrong. Their predatory instinct was picking up some bad feedback from me. I wasn't prey, and they knew it. Victims didn't return those stares. Their street smarts served them well that night. Their eyes darted from the rear view mirror to the Hack License displayed over the meter.

They grew increasingly nervous as the cab crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. I got off the first exit and the cab made the tight circle and stopped at the light at Cadman Plaza. The Brooklyn Bridge loomed over us and I watched the streetlight glowing red in the night air. Suddenly, they made their decision.

"We're gonna get out here", one of them snapped.

They threw a "pound" at me through the opening in the partition and jumped out of the cab. There was no doubt in my mind that they had "made" me as a cop. They couldn't walk away quick enough as they glanced back at me. I put the five-dollar bill into my cigar box and tucked the service revolver back into my holster. I locked the back doors of my cab and flipped on the "off-duty" light. I still had my poke of money and went home to my wife and kids. I found myself in a number of situations like that, and I learned just how dangerous that work could be. My empathy for cab drivers increased each day I worked a taxi.

Medallion cabs seldom ventured into Harlem. The high incidence of cab robberies in those days deterred most of the regular taxis. The residents of that area were serviced for the most part by "gypsy cabs". These were privately owned cars with no license. They were illegal cabs that were not guided by the fare rates of medallion cab owners. On a busy night in Harlem, a cabbie could make small fortune. The customers in Harlem were good tippers. The sight of a yellow medallion cab on West 125th Street would evoke wide-eyed disbelief by pedestrians. My cab was never empty from the time I entered Harlem until I left. The short hops and big tips soon would have my cigar box overflowing with cash. It didn't take a genius to know that any cab working Harlem on a Friday night would be like a Wells Fargo Stagecoach. Locking the doors and flipping on the "off-duty" light was no guarantee that you could leave Harlem. At each light, customers would clamor to get into the cab and the banging on the windshield and doors of the cab wasn't reassuring. When I would finally work my way back downtown, I may have felt safer, but I didn't making the dough I made uptown.

Today, the West Side of Manhattan is a thriving area with upscale restaurants and the Lincoln Center complex. But only a few decades in the past, Amsterdam Avenue and Columbus Avenue weren't anything to rave about. When I would take a fare north of Columbus Circle, I would shoot back through Central Park to the East Side. That was a bad period in the history of New York City. The heroin drug epidemic had resulted in whole areas of the West Side losing the battle against the scourge of drugs. I remember an incident that caused much criticism of the NYPD. A woman had been screaming for help in an apartment building. The radio cars responded to what appeared to be an abandoned building. There were so many such buildings, and so many drug addicts in the area, that the call for help was prematurely given back as "unfounded". A woman was found murdered in that building. For such a killing to occur in the Upper West Side was too much for the media and the public to tolerate. To me, that was one of the low points during the deterioration of the City of New York.

I could write of many incidents that happened in the back seats of those taxicabs, but as the saying goes: "Discretion is the better part of valor". The taxicab drivers that work the streets of New York City today reflect the recent demographic changes that have occurred in America. Nevertheless, those drivers face the same risks and problems that cabbies always have had to deal with. Driving a taxi has been the choice of aspiring writers, actors, entertainers, and people trying to better themselves in this wonderful town. Yellow medallion taxis are an indispensable part of the scene of New York City. The Street Crime Unit of the NYPD has used yellow cabs with great success. Also, their use enables Street Crime cops to respond with added safety to scenes of in-progress violent crimes.

If the cops of the NYPD work during off-duty hours, is there any way for the City of New York and those officers to mutually benefit from such work? In the Spring of 1998, the NYPD introduced a program that permits cops to perform off-duty law enforcement work in New York City. The Paid Detail Unit was established to coordinate this program. Under this program, private organizations may hire uniformed cops. The Paid Detail cops are taken from a database of available volunteers. All Paid Detail officers are considered off-duty, acting as private contractors. The private organization or "vendor" must provide form 1099 forms. The cops are paid based on their rank. The cost for a single police officer is $27.00 per hour. How does the taxpayer of the City of New York benefit? The prevention of crime by the uniformed presence of such police officers is hard to measure. Perception of public safety can be as important a concept as the reality of crime. Unwarranted fear of crime can impact on a community beyond the actual crime rate. The Paid Detail Unit of the NYPD can bring about a sense of public order and safety when uniformed cops are assigned to events where large numbers of the public assemble. Private industry has a great opportunity to secure a safe environment for their customers as well as providing cops with much needed financial benefits. The police officers are in uniform, working as cops. They owe all their allegiance to their chosen profession. The Paid Detail Unit of the NYPD can be reached at 212-374-0302 during business hours.

Copyright © 2000 Edward D. Reuss

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