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Wheelchair sting puts city’s taxis to the test

Drivers complying with rules regarding disabled

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / March 19, 2010

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Steven Howard rolled his battered wheelchair up Boylston Street to the line of cabs parked outside the Prudential Center.

“Can I get a ride, please?’’ he asked the driver at the head of the line, a bespectacled man in a white cab.

The driver nodded and folded the wheelchair into the trunk of the cab as Howard, hunched and limping, hobbled to the passenger side door.

Moments later, Howard was dropped at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he got out of the chair, walked — with ease this time — to his partner’s unmarked car and reported on the driver.

“He was perfect,’’ said Howard, a 45-year-old police officer in the Boston police hackney unit.

For the past several weeks, Howard and other officers have been conducting undercover stings around the city to find out if Boston cabdrivers are giving rides to the disabled, as they are obligated to do.

The ruse is simple: dress in plain clothes, use a wheelchair, and flag a cab. Anyone who refuses the undercover officer has violated hackney rules and faces suspension.

It is a new tactic police are using in the aftermath of a complaint by Shari Zakim, the daughter of the late civil rights activist Leonard P. Zakim. Shari Zakim uses a wheelchair and said she was snubbed by a cabdriver in Allston as she tried get a ride home early on New Year’s Day.

“That’s what told us we have a problem out there and we have to address it,’’ said Captain Paul O’Connor, who heads the hackney unit, which oversees the city’s hackney licenses and enforces rules for drivers. “We want 100 percent compliance.’’

In the month and a half police have conducted the stings, they have not found any violations.

Sometimes the cabdrivers wise up to the operation.

Yesterday, Howard got into a cab on Huntington Avenue as his partner, Officer Jerry Ajemian, waited around the corner in a black Crown Victoria. Unbeknownst to Ajemian, the taxi driver had seen the unmarked car pull around the corner and suspected something.

The taxi driver pulled up beside Ajemian and grinned.

“You’re going to get me?’’ he shouted out the window.

“Don’t say a word to anyone,’’ Ajemian shot back.

Howard jokingly rebuked his partner.

“You blew the cover, man!’’ he said.

The driver’s discovery was not a setback, Ajemian said, noting that if word spreads of the stings, it will force drivers to obey the rules.

Still, Howard takes pains to keep his identity cloaked. Yesterday, he dressed in jeans and a gray jacket. He donned a Red Sox hat, which he wore backwards, to hide his spiky crew cut, the hairstyle sported by many police officers.

The chair, which came from a lost property warehouse in Hyde Park, is manual, has balding tires, a peeling leather back, and no footrests. Howard said he believes the chair helps sell the ruse.

“I think it makes it more convincing,’’ Howard said. “They look at me and probably think I’m a junkie or something like that.’’

Tiffany Mitchell, manager at Top Cab in Revere, where the driver who allegedly snubbed Zakim worked, praised the stings.

“Anything to get the cabdrivers up to snuff and follow procedure,’’ she said. “If you catch a couple of bad apples out of the group, it’s unfortunate for them, but it’s fortunate for those who use wheelchairs.’’

Officers conduct random stings during the day and night, police said. The stings have become part of the unit’s undercover operations, which also watch for other violations, like drivers who refuse to take people on short rides, drivers from other cities and towns who try to pick up fares in Boston, and drivers who won’t accept credit cards.

The newest sting helps protect the civil rights of disabled people, said Michael Muehe, executive director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities.

“We need to do this kind of enforcement,’’ said Muehe. “People with disabilities face this kind of discrimination every day.’’

Last month, the hackney unit received a complaint from a blind woman who said a driver refused to give her a ride when he saw her guide dog. The driver, she said, locked the door, told her he does not drive dogs, and drove away. She managed to get another cab; the department suspended the first driver for five days, according to a police report.

On New Year’s Day, the same day Zakim was refused a cab, Brian McLaughlin, who relies on a motorized wheelchair, was left stranded at Fenway Park when the cabdriver he had arranged to pick him up never arrived. McLaughlin, who knew the driver, had paid him $200 for a ride to and from the ballpark. When McLaughlin called him to find out where he was, the driver said he was not coming because it was his day off. The driver was eventually suspended for 30 days and forced to reimburse McLaughlin.

McLaughlin, a 29-year-old attorney from Brighton, said it was not the first time he spent a lot of money trying to ensure he would get a ride home, and probably not the last.

“One feels like you have to make it worth their while to come and get you,’’ he said. “It takes them longer to pick up handicappers than it does the average Joe. . . . You got to do what you go to do.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

Shari Zakim, who uses a wheelchair, said that she was passed by while trying to hail a taxi after celebrating New Year’s Eve in Allston. Shari Zakim, who uses a wheelchair, said that she was passed by while trying to hail a taxi after celebrating New Year’s Eve in Allston.