A District taxicab commissioner who recently urged cabbies to refuse to pick up "dangerous-looking" black passengers reiterated her remarks yesterday, even as D.C. officials--including Mayor Anthony A. Williams--repudiated her and called for tighter safety measures for the city's 6,800 cabdrivers.
"I'm only saying what's true," Sandra Seegars, who in November became the newest of nine taxicab commissioners, said of her advice to cabbies, which came after the Jan. 12 slaying of a driver in Southeast Washington. "The harsher the words, the better. Now maybe something will happen."
In two interviews and in an article she wrote for Sunday's Outlook section in The Washington Post, Seegars, who is black, called on cabbies to protect themselves from violence by avoiding "dangerous-looking" people and "dangerous neighborhoods."
She defined "dangerous-looking" as a "young black guy . . . with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants down below his underwear and unlaced tennis shoes." She said cabbies should stay out of low-income black neighborhoods, mentioning 59th and East Capitol streets as an example.
Seegars's remarks drew nods of understanding from some cabdrivers who said that they have been robbed at gunpoint and that each night, they face what they consider to be life-and-death decisions over whether to risk working in crime-plagued areas.
But many D.C. officials, and one member of Congress, said Seegars was essentially endorsing racism in a city where African Americans--particularly males--often have difficulty getting cabs to stop for them.
"These remarks are inexcusable," Williams (D) said of Seegars. "They don't reflect the policy of this administration."
The Taxicab Commission, which is part of the executive branch of D.C. government, issued its own rejection of Seegars's statements. Interim commission Chairman George W. Crawford said Seegars's views are her own and violate D.C. law and commission policy, which prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, disability, personal appearance and destination, among other criteria.
"Any taxicab driver following Seegars's recommendations to discriminate would be subject to a $500 fine and license suspension or revocation," Crawford said in a letter to The Post.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) said yesterday that "inadvertent or not, it's racial profiling taking place here." Morella questioned what advice Seegars had for white passengers who dress the same "dangerous-looking" way.
On Friday, Morella raised the issue during a hearing of the House subcommittee on the District. Morella asked Williams whether a prospective taxi passenger "has to look like you, with a bow tie" to hail a taxicab in the District.
Williams said that before being elected mayor, he sometimes had trouble hailing cabs in Washington and other cities. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) added that a black person could be wearing a three-piece suit and still not be driven to certain sections of the city.
Seegars, who has lived in Southeast Washington for more than 30 years, said she is leaning on a taxi regulation that permits drivers to refuse to accept passengers if the driver "has cause to fear injury."
Crawford said that rule provides drivers with "reasonable measures" to protect themselves from "real and perceived harm."
The mayor endorsed the installation of bulletproof shields that separate the back-seat passenger from the driver. Drivers have different opinions about the shields. Some say a robber could shoot through the front windows instead. One driver told Williams the shields would ruin the ambiance of the vehicle; the mayor scoffed at that.
"We need to step up and initiate reforms," Williams said. "We can't wait for a consensus among the drivers."
At its Feb. 1 meeting, the commission is scheduled to discuss a proposal to make the shields mandatory in all cabs.
Seegars said she hoped she has ignited a fire under policymakers to change working conditions for cabbies. In the meantime, Morella yesterday called on Williams, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, the D.C. Council and the taxicab industry to set up a meeting to discuss safety measures.