hide captionMax DeBarros drives his Metro Taxi in Denver. Police credit him with helping crack a hit-and-run case by recording and reporting the license plate number of the truck involved.
Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post
Some days, it would be easy to mistake the Metro Taxi dispatch center in Denver for a police station. Traffic and crime incidents are recorded in a special logbook, as drivers call in descriptions and locations to police.
It's part of a program called Taxis on Patrol. Just a day after the program began, a cab driver helped police make an arrest for a fatal hit-and-run. In the months since, eyewitness calls from cabbies using a bulletin system similar to an Amber Alert have led to hundreds of arrests.
"They're in places at times in which police officers aren't," says Larry Stevenson, the cab company's communications manager. "We have assaults, we have domestic violences being reported, we have hit-and-runs, we have drunk drivers."
After a hit-and-run driver struck and killed a 42-year-old pedestrian across town, police sent out an emergency bulletin that shows up on digital highway signs and on the fare screens of hundreds of taxis throughout the city.
"As you see in this particular box right here, a message will come up," explains longtime Denver cab driver Teddy Johnson. He is keeping his eyes peeled for a white GMC van with tinted windows. "They said it was going south," he says.
Johnson is not law enforcement, but drivers like him have gone through safety training and gotten certified. At first he was skeptical about putting the bright Taxis on Patrol sticker in his back window.
"You know, I had this thing where, you know, hey, I don't want that put on my cab, you know, people in the neighborhoods calling you snitch," Johnson says. "I had to get past that point. My heart is good, and I look for good and right in life."
hide captionLongtime Denver taxi driver Teddy Johnson participates in the "Taxis on Patrol" program, and has made two reports of potential safety issues so far.
Kirk Siegler for NPR
Johnson doesn't see the white van. But he has recently reported two incidents — one involving a father and son who got into his cab in the middle of the day.
"The father was like 75 years old, couldn't hardly walk," Johnson remembers. "And when he opened up the garage to this condo, all I seen was nothing but Bud Light cases, and empty cases of hard alcohol and pizza boxes, and both of these guys came out and couldn't hardly walk. They was very smelly."
Johnson won an award for notifying police that the men's health and safety were at risk. Since Taxis on Patrol began, more than a thousand calls have come in, ranging from serious crimes to humanitarian concerns.
"I think it'll make communities safer as a result of this 'Neighborhood Watch on Wheels,' if you will," Denver Police Cmdr. Tony Lopez says. He says in this era of tight city budgets, partnering with the private sector to keep the streets safer makes sense.
"Actually, it's serving as a force multiplier for us in the delivery of services and public safety," Lopez says.
And because of that, it's hard to find somebody who doesn't speak highly of the program, except maybe criminals. Lopez says he would like to see the program expand to UPS drivers and truckers.
In northeast Denver, cabbie Teddy Johnson is just about to pick up a truck driver who needs a ride to get a prescription filled. Robert Ellis, the trucker, hasn't heard of Taxis on Patrol, but he says he'd be a willing participant.
"I see people DUI, or I see anything, oh yeah, I call 911 in a heartbeat," Ellis says, and Johnson agrees.
But for now, the taxi concept is taking off. Other cities across the country are now certifying cabbies under the program's safety training. It's also being developed abroad, in South Africa and Australia.