Why are the authorities in Miami and elsewhere hassling drivers associated with ride-sharing companies like Lyft? Are there really no serious crimes they could be dealing with instead?
A Lyft car. Photo via Flickr user Σπύρος Βάθης
In 2013, there were 46,164 crimes committed within the borders of Florida’s Miami-Dade County, and 6,468 of those were violent crimes such as homicide, forcible rape, and aggravated assault. Now, though that represents a 15 percent drop in violence since 2009, there is still quite a bit for cops to do—yet officers are so bored that they’ve resorted to carrying out sting operations on drivers for the peer-to-peer car service Lyft.
On Wednesday and Thursday, after booking rides as passengers, undercover Miami-Dade cops impounded two drivers’ cars and fined them for operating a vehicle for hire without the proper licenses. Lyft, which operates in 60 cities, provides a way for people in need of a taxi to get a ride from a driver of a private car (adorned with the company’s signature pink mustache), after which the passenger gives the driver a “donation.” Lyft says it’s technically not a taxi service—it’s a community of drivers and people who need rides—and therefore doesn’t need to be regulated as such, though that assertion has made a lot of taxi and limo companies mighty angry. Lyft came to the Miami-Dade area just three weeks ago, and apparently its drivers there weren’t aware that what they were doing is technically illegal. They definitely didn’t think that the cops would resort to posing as passengers in order to arrest them.
The taxi-company-led backlash against Lyft and similar car services is a nationwide trend. In the last few months, Madison, Wisconsin; Houston; Austin; and Pittsburgh have also seen Lyft drivers ticketed and slapped with fines ranging from $25 to $2,000 for operating illegal cabs or similar no-nos. And last week the Virginia DMV banned Lyft and the slightly classier Uber, which means stings may be coming to that state as well. (It's important to note that many of the cities Lyft operates in aren’t exactly flooded with legal cabs—Pittsburgh, for instance, barely has any.)
Cops in Miami-Dade county have done a number of awful things over the years, like choking out 14-year-olds and fatally Tasering graffiti artists in the chest, so its a small blessing that at least the driver-busting undercover officers aren’t committing acts of random violence. But committing so many officers to going after renegade cab drivers—whose crime hurts no one but politically connected taxi companies—smacks of cronyism, and the sting operations target people who are presumably sorely in need of the income they get from driving a mustachioed car. (To its credit, Lyft is paying for the drivers’ citations and to get their cars back from the pound.)
In any case, its not as if these police operations are going to stop the spread of peer-to-peer car services. Last year in San Francisco, where Uber and Lyft both got their start, drivers were arrested in a crackdown at an airport—but California regulators ended up making their services legal in September. A few arrests won’t stop economic trends from marching on, but they will massively inconvenience the drivers who get caught in the dragnet.
Now on to the rest of this week’s bad cops:
–On June 8, the New York Times' Matt Apuzzo wrote a useful summary of just how much military gear has been given to police departments around the country during the Obama presidency. This includes “tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars, and aircraft.” I feel safer now; don’t you?
–Those goodies are totally necessary according to Michael Gayer, the sheriff of Pulaski County, Indiana, who recently celebrated his department’s acquisition of a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) military vehicle for the county of 13,000 people. “The United States of America has become a war zone,” a totally sane-sounding Gayer told the Indianapolis Star . “There's violence in the workplace, there's violence in schools, and there's violence in the street.” FYI, crime in America has declined 45 percent since 1991—either Gayer doesn’t know that, or he’s just too excited about his new toy to care about anything else.
–According to a June 5 report by NBC affiliate WFLA, cops in Tampa Bay broke into a man’s truck in February to look for weed based entirely on a smell. Local business dude Matthew Heller told WFLA he left a concert one night to find that his truck had been broken into and damaged, and whoever did it had left a note that said the vehicle had been searched by police because they had smelled marijuana. The cops, who found nothing at all illicit in the truck, helpfully left a phone number for Heller to call if he had questions, but he’s angry that his property was damaged when he wasn’t even present. Whether the search was legal at all is another question. Generally speaking, without a search warrant or the permission of the owner, the police can’t search a vehicle. Even the exigent-circumstances excuse may not hold up here, because nobody was in danger, and Heller wasn’t even there to potentially destroy any contraband-drug evidence in anticipation of a police search.
–Making a combo gun/flashlight with a flashlight switch right below the trigger seems like a dangerous idea, and sure enough, on Sunday, the Denver Post reported on a potential link between accidental police shootings and firearms with flashlight attachments. This is such an issue that the Denver police chief even banned the use of one type of gun-mounted flashlight after the design was implicated in two accidental shootings. It’s unclear how many people have been shot as a result of a cop’s finger slipping, but the Post uncovered five “flashlight-related” shooting events from around the country, meaning there are likely more.
–On Thursday, June 5, a former Louisiana police officer was indicted by a grand jury for aggravated animal cruelty over the killing of a dog. On April 28, Brian Thierbach, then a cop in the town of Sulpher, fatally shot Arzy, the dog of wandering musician Brian Carpenter after Carpenter trespassed on private property during a storm. Thierbach initially claimed that Arzy bit him on the foot before he fired, but a witness disputed that claim and the officer resigned from the force in May. This indictment should come as a pleasant surprise for folks who may have noticed and worried over some cops’ bad habit of shooting dogs and getting away with it.
–Our Good Cop of the Week put his life on the line to save a young girl from certain death. Last Monday, June 2, Curry County, Oregon, Deputy Sheriff Terry Brown responded to a 911 call after a 14-year-old got caught in a rip tide at Harris Beach near Portland. Brown slapped on a life vest, then dived into the water and held the teen’s head above the water for 45 minutes while rescuers attempted to retrieve them both from the rough waters. According to the Associated Press, Brown and the teen were hypothermic by the time they were taken from the water, and Brown may have been only minutes away from death. Seriously impressive bravery from Deputy Brown.