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What's best in Baltimore taxis: shields or security cameras?

Step into a cab in many major cities, including Baltimore, and you'll wind up sitting behind a clear, bullet-resistant shield that separates you from the driver.

But one taxicab company operating in Baltimore wants to replace the state-mandated protective guard with security cameras. Baltimore Taxi Affiliation Services, which operates 100 cabs under the Arrow Cab and Baltimore City Taxi brands, recently asked the Maryland Public Service Commission to consider amending state regulations to allow for either a shield or a camera in Baltimore cabs.

The PSC, which oversees taxicabs in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, is soliciting comments to determine whether to pursue the company's proposal. The regulator is scheduled to consider the matter in April.

About 1,150 taxicabs are licensed to operate in Baltimore City, where shields became mandatory in 1995. The partition is not required in Baltimore County cabs.

Meanwhile, the idea of replacing partitions with security cameras appears not to have wide support in the local taxi and driver community.

"Shield is protection," said Tsegaye Yitbarek, who has been a taxi driver in the city for 15 years. "Camera is a witness."

Other drivers and companies also expressed concern about the cost of installing cameras, especially as drivers are now paying more for gas. And some say plainly that shields are the best prevention against crime.

The Public Service Commission's staff said in a report last month that it was "not convinced that the security camera will reduce crime as effectively as the mandated partition given the fact that a perpetrator's opportunity for harm increases without the barrier of the partition."

However, Baltimore Taxi says its move toward more a fuel-efficient fleet means newer vehicles such as Scions will have less space to accommodate security shields than the traditional Ford Crown Victorias. Moreover, the company argues, security cameras are just as effective as shields in providing protection.

"Security cameras will deter crimes and have proven to do so in a number of venues," said Michael Levine, Baltimore Taxi's chief executive officer. "We feel that it's an alternative to partitions."

"We'll give drivers the choice," he added. "If you want a partition, we'll give you a partition. If you want a camera, we'll give you a camera."

Cities across the country have different rules governing taxicab safety.

In New York, a vast majority of yellow cabs are required to have partitions, though the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission allows the installation of digital security cameras instead of shields on independently owned and operated taxicabs.

In Chicago, a 2007 ordinance allowed taxicab owners to install security cameras instead of partitions, but owners were at first slow to do so, The Chicago Tribune reported. Recently, though, thousands of Windy City cabs have switched to cameras, the paper said.

Since shields became mandatory in Baltimore City cabs, no driver has been killed and assaults against drivers have been few, according to the Public Service Commission's staff report.

Citing statistics provided by Baltimore police, the PSC staff said 54 robberies involving taxicabs were reported for 2010 and 2011. Baltimore police could not provide data on assaults against drivers, according to the PSC report.

Still, the job can be dangerous. In December, a taxi driver was shot in the back in the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore. Police said the victim had been driving with two passengers when one pulled a gun and demanded money.

Veolia Transportation, the largest taxi company in Baltimore, which operates under the Checker, Yellow and Sun names with a 550-car fleet, opposes changes to the state's taxicab shield regulations.

Veolia said it had installed shields that surround the driver's seat in smaller cars, such as the Toyota Prius.

"The problem with cameras is not expense," said Dwight Kines, the company's regional vice president. "They're not [as] effective as shields at keeping back-seat passengers from attacking drivers."

But Baltimore Taxi's Levine said his company was not asking Maryland regulators to eliminate partitions; it just wants to add security cameras as an option for cab owners.

"We're not asking the city to say all vehicles have to have cameras," he said. "We're saying: Could we put cameras in some of our cars?"

In a recent survey of its drivers in Baltimore, Levine said, Baltimore Taxi found that more than 50 percent said they'd rather have a partition than a security camera. At the same time, almost all drivers acknowledged that they had driven with their shields open — defeating their purpose.

Levine, who also operates an 800-cab fleet in Chicago, said cameras installed in those vehicles have been effective in deterring crime. The company submitted data to the Public Service Commission showing that crime against drivers decreased in cities where security cameras are permitted.

"We don't see any difference in Chicago in crime between vehicles with cameras and vehicles with partitions," Levine said.

At Baltimore's Penn Station, where yellow cabs line up for passengers, several drivers said they would take the shield over a camera.

Even before shields were required in Baltimore, Andy Tedla — who has driven for 20 years — said he always drove a taxicab with one.

"Whether it's a law or not, I always used a shield," he said. "Cameras could only show a picture. It doesn't deter someone from hurting me."

One driver, however, said he would prefer a camera.

"I don't like shields," said Teshome Dubiyo. "There's not enough space and some customers complain."

Yitbarek, the taxicab driver, credits a shield for saving his life more than a decade ago. While Yitbarek was attempting to pick up a fare on a city street, someone shot the man as he tried to get into the cab; a bullet also struck the vehicle's shield.

Said Yitbarek, who drove the wounded passenger to Saint Agnes Hospital: "If I didn't have a shield, I would be dead."

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

Baltimore taxicab security camera proposal

The Maryland Public Service Commission is soliciting comments on Baltimore Taxi Affiliation's request to permit the use of cameras to determine whether further proceedings are warranted.

Comments can be submitted by March 16 to David J. Collins, Executive Secretary, Maryland Public Service Commission, William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 St. Paul St., 16th floor, Baltimore, MD 21202. Reference ML# 135972.

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