Los Angeles police made nearly 650 arrests of "bandit" taxicab drivers in the first seven months of the year, more than double the number in all of 2006, city officials said Wednesday.
The increase is attributed to the Bandit Taxi Enforcement Program, a joint venture between the city Department of Transportation and the Los Angeles Police Department that targets cab drivers who officials say are often unlicensed and unregulated.
Many of those drivers are arrested multiple times, said Taxicab Administrator Tom Drischler.
The City Council endorsed the program last August and approved a 20-cent surcharge on each cab ride to help fund it. City-licensed taxi drivers also pay $30 a month per cab to help cover the program's annual budget of about $810,000.
"Illegal and unlicensed drivers will not be tolerated on our streets," Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said at a news conference downtown. "It's clear that bandit taxis pose a threat."
Greuel, chairwoman of the council's Transportation Committee, said bandit drivers often charge exorbitant fees, have criminal records or have had their driver's licenses revoked.
Passengers of bandit cabs make dozens of complaints each year about drivers who demand sexual favors or rob or assault them, said Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Gillman.
Transportation officials say bandit drivers are not as safe as city-licensed operators.
"People have died in bandit cabs," said Taxicab Commission President Joe Czyzyk. "That doesn't happen with a licensed franchise taxicab in our city."
One of the worst such accidents occurred in 1999, when a bandit driver who had been convicted of driving under the influence and had his licensed suspended, crashed his yellow Chevy sedan into a Metro Rail Blue Line train, killing himself and five passengers.
Officials say there are about 2,000 bandit drivers across the city, closely rivaling the licensed fleet of about 2,300. Bandit drivers cost licensed operating companies an estimated $30 million a year.
Before the creation of the program, Department of Transportation officers were solely responsible for enforcement of laws against the unlicensed cabbies but had only limited powers, Drischler said. Now, police officers volunteer for specific overtime shifts to seek out bandit drivers.
Before the LAPD's involvement seven months ago, arrests of bandit drivers averaged 315 a year, far below the roughly 1,000 arrests anticipated for 2007.
"It wasn't until we got the capital and infusion of manpower that we were really able to boost the arrests," Gillman said.
Taxicab driver Soo Myung Yun, 61, said the actual bandits are probably not those getting arrested. He said he doesn't blame the people driving the unlicensed vehicles.
"They have no job; they couldn't get a job," Yun said Wednesday while driving his route on Main Street. Instead, he thinks the true bandits are the ringleaders of illegal taxicab services who risk nothing while collecting money from drivers.