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“This is to inform you that a complaint has been filed against you with the D.C. Taxicab Commission, Office of Complaints, alleging misconduct in your operation of a taxicab.”
Hundreds of DCTC’s 8,500 or so drivers have read these words for allegations ranging from aggressive driving and improper fare to assault and even possession of drugs. Riders and drivers alike hope actionable complaints result in a fair hearing of the case and, if applicable, disciplinary action.
But despite efforts by recently appointed Chairman Ernest Chrappah to improve the way complaints are resolved, many question the system’s ability to provide due process and accountability.
In December 2014, a backlog of complaints in the system soared to 1,600 unresolved submissions, some dating back to 2012. Many were catalogued in stacks of paper—the system had yet to go digital—and were being sorted through at a rate five per day, by a single employee at the commission’s headquarters in Anacostia.
That employee was David Person, the former complaints manager at DCTC. From when he was hired in 2011 until three contractors were added to the team in January 2015, Person says he averaged 12 to 13 hours of work every day, coming into the office on Saturdays to prepare cases. “I was drained,” he says.
Within 24 hours of a complaint submission, both the driver and complainant receive a letter of acknowledgement. If the complaint is actionable—meaning it alleges a violation of D.C. Code, which can range from aggressive driving to refusal to haul—DCTC notifies the driver with dates for an optional resolution conference, where the driver presents evidence for his or her case. By day 30, DCTC determines the outcome: a letter of reprimand, fine, refund, dismissal, notice of infraction, or referral to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
When he first took over the complaints office, Person says around 400 complaints were “just sitting there. Nothing was being done.” The backlog was “inevitable,” he says, with a single employee handling an already overflowing complaints log receiving an additional 25 to 35 submissions per week.
After the contractors were added in January, “we were really moving with steam,” Person says. “Due diligence was given to all of our customers.”
In June 2015, Ernest Chrappah replaced interim Chairman Eric Rogers. Chrappah is a young entrepreneur with a background in information technology who served as DCTC’s chief of operations. He says that under his leadership, the backlog was cleared by the end of June.
“We had aggressive timelines, where we’re going to reduce the backlog in 30 days or less,” Chrappah says. “Everybody thought, ‘Oh OK, maybe that’s the new guy’… But at the end of June, zero backlog.”
Chrappah credits the success to a number of initiatives, like moving the entire system online. He also implemented predictive analytics technology, which tracks patterns in the system’s data. That technology allows DCTC to identify what Chrappah calls “at-risk” drivers—drivers who are more likely to be involved in a complaint based on prior behavior. It’s the same idea Chrappah used as former deputy chief information officer for the Child and Family Services Agency when tracking families at risk of abusive behavior.
“So if we identify at-risk drivers, we’re not going to say, ‘good luck, you’re on your own,’” Chrappah says. “We say, ‘we have an online portal where you can enroll at no cost to you to take some customer sensitivity training.’”
But Person says he is “disturbed” by the notion that Chrappah eradicated the backlog. He says the backlog had already been cleared—except for about 400 complaints—by the time Chrappah arrived. Person says Chrappah instructed him to issue letters of reprimand—an unenforceable statement of guilt that is added to the driver’s DCTC license file—to close the remaining cases.
“These were Ernest Chrappah’s words: ‘If the [complainant] wasn’t slapped down or beat up, then issue [the driver] a letter of reprimand,’” Person says.
Anthony Coleman, who worked as a contractor in the complaints team from December 2014 until October 2015, says the same: “[Chrappah] told us to close them no matter what the situation was, whether it was severe or not severe… He just wanted to close it no matter what. He wanted the backlog to be gone.”
(In November, Person was fired, he alleges, for challenging a superior for looking through the email of an ex-employee. DCTC spokesman Neville Waters says the commission can’t comment on personnel matters.)
Waters says letters of reprimand were sent to drivers in Chrappah’s first days as chairman when the nature of the complaint didn’t merit a fine, a process he says is consistent with standard operating procedure.
Further, Chrappah says the driver is only reprimanded once DCTC has found facts to support the allegation. The letter of reprimand, Chrappah says, is a “slap on the wrist” alternative to dragging the issue through the courts.
Taxicab drivers paid $73,375 in fines to the D.C. Treasurer in fiscal year 2015, Waters says. That was the result of 1,323 complaints submitted, though not all resulted in a fine. Complaints warranting a fine averaged $83.50 per fine.
Even with Chrappah’s initiatives, many passengers still complain of long response times and lack of accountability in the system.
On July 28, 2015, Emily Bacher hailed a cab to an appointment on the George Washington University campus from her home in Park View. Bacher says her taxicab driver was smoking during the ride, did not let her pay through the credit card reader, “lied” about a dysfunction with the meter, and invented a fare at the end of the trip. She took down the driver’s information and filed a complaint over email that day.
The commission is required to acknowledge passenger complaints within 24 hours or by the next business day. But for Bacher, a month went by with no communication from the commission. She tweeted her frustration to the commission’s Twitter handle, and Person responded an hour later. The commission had tried to fine the driver, Person said, but he refused to pay. The commission was in the process of taking the driver to court.
“That was about a month and a half ago, and I haven’t heard anything from them since,” Bacher says over email. “The lack of accountability with D.C. taxis is a little scary.”
But not every customer has a negative experience: Kristen Bolden, a Virginia resident who placed her first complaint with DCTC this summer, refers to her experience as “A1 customer service.”
While taking a taxi from Union Station to a nearby hotel in May 2015, Bolden says her driver purposely took a longer route in an attempt to overcharge her. Bolden used the email at the bottom of her receipt to complain, and received a response from Robert Motta, an employee with DCTC complaints team, acknowledging her complaint the next day.
Bolden sent a copy of her receipt to DCTC and was reimbursed by mail within the same month. “They followed up and they made it right,” she says.
Royale Simms, the local management chief of the Teamsters-affiliated D.C. Taxi Operators Association, says the real problem that the commission needs to address is a lack of front-end training for taxi drivers. One area to start with is the test for obtaining a taxi license: Simms says potential drivers have three chances to take the test, and the questions are repeated in the same order each time. “So you can learn A, B, C, and pass.”
The section of D.C. code that lists possible violations, Simms says, isn’t helpful either: “It’s the most vague section of regulation you’ve ever seen in your life.”
Title 31 reads that no public vehicle for hire operator “shall perform any willful act which endangers or is against the best interest, health, or safety of the passenger or the public, even if not specifically prohibited by Title 31 or other District laws.” The section lists a few examples with no definitions attached, such as “offensive language” and “aggressive driving.” Without specific definitions for these terms, Simms says the commission is bogged down by baseless complaints.
Chrappah disagrees, arguing that if drivers don’t understand the law, they can contact the commission for help. He’s also working on translating the language DCTC uses with drivers to a 9th-grade reading level, though he quips, “if people cannot read their letters… maybe they shouldn’t be driving in the first place.”
Simms is also a long-time advocate of alternative methods of punishment, arguing that the commission can use fines as a way to encourage drivers to settle. The commission often “stacks” multiple violations against drivers, he says, then offers the driver a bargain: Take the case to court and risk having to pay the entire stack, or admit to the most serious accusation and have the stacked charges dropped.
“So oftentimes, the drivers will pay the money, not because they feel as though they violated the rules, but because they don’t want to deal with the risk of going to a hearing,” Simms says.
In July 2015, Chrappah reduced the maximum fine drivers can receive for any one violation from $5,000 to $500, a reduction he jokingly likens to a “flyer sale.” But he denies that the system is rigged toward settlement.
“You don’t have to settle,” he says. “If the deal is not good enough for you, walk away.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery