If you drive a taxi in the District, chances are you’ve heard of Officer Thomas Krmenec, king of traffic enforcement in the city’s 5th District in Northeast.
Nothing escapes Krmenec when it comes to enforcing taxicab regulations — and for that matter, all rules of the road. He is so serious about keeping order on the streets that last year he handed out more than 3,000 tickets, earning him accolades as the “most productive traffic officer in the city.”
When he’s not inspecting taxicabs, Krmenec, an 11-year D.C. police veteran, is pulling over speeders, arresting drunk drivers and coming to the aid of residents looking for traffic-calming in their neighborhoods. He is a rarity in a city that relies heavily on automated traffic enforcement.
For taxi drivers, though, he’s the boogeyman.
In the first 10 months of 2015, Krmenec issued 842 tickets to cabbies — nearly half of all tickets the city’s officers gave them during that stretch.
“He says he is assigned to traffic. Then again, I don’t know if taxis make up 20 percent of the driving population in the District of Columbia, and nearly a fifth of his stops are taxis,” said Royale Simms, an organizer with taxi drivers affiliated with the Teamsters. “It almost feels like it’s a setup.”
There’s no conspiracy against taxi drivers, D.C. police officials say, noting Krmenec’s consistent enforcement with all vehicles on the roads in his territory, home to some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. He often can be found at the juncture of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE, which about 100,000 vehicles pass through each day.
Some days, Krmenec is doing speed enforcement. Other days, he’s watching for prohibited left turns or enforcing seat-belt use. He is often deployed to stop-sign enforcement in high-crime areas.
“His stop-sign enforcement has resulted in recovery of handguns and people wanted on various offenses, so it goes beyond just ticket-writing,” 5th District Cmdr. William Fitzgerald said. “I believe he makes the 5th District a safer place to use the roadways in. I will venture to say that he is the most productive traffic officer in the city.”
A request to interview Krmenec for this article was declined. But those who have worked with him say he is passionate about his job, believing that traffic enforcement reduces the number of crashes and traffic deaths and improves safety overall.
When residents of 20th Street NE complained about vehicles flying down the residential community’s roads, officials say that Krmenec set up camp in the neighborhood until residents said they felt safer walking. Some neighbors wrote to thank him for helping make it safer for children walking to school.
“I have seen families walking on the median and kids trying to get across six lanes of traffic. The road can be dangerous without the proper pedestrian infrastructure, and having some police presence is great,” Robert Looper III, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Fort Lincoln, said of New York Avenue.
Ziena Abraha, a D.C. taxi driver for 25 years, said he was once pulled over by Krmenec after a snowstorm. He was four blocks from home, headed to the carwash, he said, to clean his salt-covered 2004 Ford.
“It was snowing, and the car was dirty. I told him: ‘All cars are dirty. Even your car is dirty,’ ” said Abraha, 59, of Northeast.
Abraha got seven tickets that day, including a $500 fine for not producing proof of insurance. He said that he had several insurance papers and couldn’t find the right one but that Krmenec wouldn’t wait. The total cost in fines: $855.
Abraha said $100 equals a day’s work, adding that each fine hurts a driver’s ability to maintain a clean record to operate in the city. He said he contested the tickets in court — which can take months — and all were dismissed because Krmenec did not show up for the hearing. It took Abraha two years to clear his record. Cabbies with pending tickets can’t renew their licenses.
“I never complain about police officers, but this police officer is something else,” Abraha said. “I don’t know if somebody is influencing him to be against taxi drivers, but he is discriminating against the taxi drivers. I am not comfortable driving to my home or to the company. They are in District 5.”
Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said that Krmenec has developed a particular expertise in rules of the road. Wherever he is assigned, his co-workers go to him with traffic questions.
“We should be encouraged by people that are out there doing the volume of work that he is doing,” Burton said.
“The bottom-line problem is we don’t have enough enforcement, and people break the rules of the road all the time, particularly taxicab drivers, who are the worst professional drivers on the planet.”
An effort to professionalize the city’s taxi fleet is what led to the rules and regulations Krmenec is so dogged in enforcing.
Changes instituted in 2012 require, among other things, that all D.C. cabs accept credit cards, install dome lights that make it easy for people to tell if they’re available, and to shift to a uniform red-and-gray color scheme that mimics the District’s Circulator buses.
The overhaul was aimed at modernizing an industry critics say has been slow to adapt to a technology-driven era. It was also meant to respond to the demands of riders who have higher expectations now that they have more options with app-based services, like Uber. Even some taxi drivers supported the changes.
Four years ago, a survey of 4,000-plus taxi riders found that a majority favored changes to improve taxi service, with 70 percent saying they supported random inspections and 69 percent favoring increased driver training.
At the time, taxi regulators said that increasing the number and quality of inspections would help, and the number of hack inspectors has since doubled to 24. So, in addition to such officers as Krmenec, there are four to six hack inspectors out at any given time. During the past fiscal year, they issued more than 10,000 citations to drivers across the city, according to D.C. Taxicab Commission data.
Both police and hack inspectors write citations for infractions of the city’s taxi regulations. None need a reason to pull a cabbie over for an inspection. The only difference is that police officers also can ticket drivers for parking and moving violations.
A review of records shows that the most common violations cabbies are cited for are failing to complete or maintain a manifest, loitering and failure to have proof of or show insurance. In general, Krmenec writes more tickets for dirty cabs than hack inspectors. Of the 10,000 tickets inspectors gave out, only 106 were for dirty cabs. Of Krmenec’s 842 tickets issued to taxi drivers, 124 were for dirty cabs. He also pays attention to a driver’s appearance, and in at least 19 instances, he ticketed cabbies for being “improperly dressed.”
Then there were the 197 issued to drivers for inconsistencies in their manifest records, 87 for not properly using the taxicab dome light, 71 for failing to show or have insurance and 27 for using a cellphone while driving. Krmenec, whose name and badge number are circulated among taxi drivers, is known to issue multiple tickets during each stop.
Drivers’ complaints about the officer’s ticketing also were featured in a WAMU story last month.
John Lally, an attorney for VIP Cab on Bladensburg Road NE, said his client has experienced an “enormous amount of tickets” for what he believes are minor infractions.
But overall, he said it’s good that police officers are conducting enforcement rather than relying only on traffic cameras.
“It’s better for us and our guys to maintain their cabs,” Lally said. “We have no problem with aggressive enforcement of the laws. We just think the laws should be equally applied.”
He said he wonders whether the officers are being given quotas to meet.
“They are under no quota. There’s no mark. There’s nothing that says they have to write so many a day. They can write zero,” said Fitzgerald, the 5th District commander. He said four of his 300 officers, including Krmenec, are assigned to traffic enforcement. “The main mission is making the community safer for all in the 5th District. If that’s accomplished by writing one ticket or 100, we are going to get it done.”
In the first eight months of 2015, officers in the 5th District issued 1,368 tickets to taxi drivers, compared with 394 tickets written by officers in the other six police districts combined.
Krmenec, 39, has a good record, police officials say, noting that the tickets he writes are rarely dismissed and that no bias has been found during a review of his enforcement.
“Yes, Krmenec wrote 800-something tickets on taxicabs, but he wrote over 3,000 tickets” in 2015, said Lt. Sean Conboy, a police spokesman. “He is in the top of the department with his enforcement. . . . He is a pretty diligent person.”
Krmenec wrote 3,362 tickets last year and 3,017 in 2014.
When asked why the 5th District has issued so many more tickets than other districts, authorities said each commander decides how to use their traffic-enforcement resources. Between 25 and 30 patrol officers are assigned to traffic enforcement across the seven police districts, according to authorities, and the division conducts specialized traffic stops throughout the year.
Krmenec’s career with D.C. police has not been solely focused on traffic. He has been recognized several times for his police work, but not for traffic enforcement.
In 2011, he was commended by the U.S. attorney’s office for the work that led to the arrest and conviction of two gang members involved in the April 2008 slaying of a 28-year-old man who was shot while sitting in his van, trapped in rush-hour traffic. The incident was one in a spate of gang shootings in Northeast that spring involving two rival crews, authorities said.
He also was recognized by the Hotel Association of Washington for his work in responding to an April 2009 rampage in which four people were shot, one fatally.
Daily reports from the 5th District list arrests by Krmenec, including charges against drunk drivers and reckless drivers.
Some might say he’s tough on everyone.
Besides, Conboy, the department spokesman, said, “If you are complying with the regulations to drive in the District, then you should have no fear of our enforcement operations.”
Number of tickets Thomas Krmenec wrote in 2015.
His tickets to cabbies
from January through October 2015.