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No safe way home 

What can be done to curb the latest string of sexual assaults in Halifax cabs?

click to enlarge AZIZA ASAT
  • Aziza Asat

Take a cab. It’ll be safer.

For many people out at night, looking for a secure way home, it’s a familiar refrain.

Lately, a different kind of phrase is becoming familiar. And for some women, the safety promised by taxis has been anything but.

Since the start of 2016, five sexual assaults have been reported in Halifax taxis. It’s a small number of cases for the nearly 1,000 licensed cabs on the streets, but that’s still nearly double the assaults reported in 2015, and it makes up almost half of the 12 cases of sexual assault by a cab driver reported to police since 2012.

More than anything, what the most recent assaults in Halifax have done is renew a debate among drivers, police and municipal officials over whether amendments to HRM taxi bylaws could create a safer ride home.

Two years ago, D was visiting Halifax from the United Kingdom and was out with a friend downtown (her name has been withheld to protect her identity). At the end of the night she hailed a cab. While exiting the vehicle, she cleaned up a spilled can of beer that someone had left in the back seat.

The driver, Ahror Mamadiev, gave D a hug in response, which she says she tolerated in order to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. Mamadiev then touched her crotch and buttocks, at which point D says she asked her friend to get out of the car and told Mamadiev to leave.

After calling the Halifax Regional Police the next morning, D decided to press charges. Mamadiev was convicted of sexual assault and given a conditional discharge at his sentencing last September. He was fired from his job with Casino Taxi, and the municipality permanently revoked his taxi license.

That’s one safeguard that’s currently in place, says Dave Buffet, president of the Halifax Taxi Owners Drivers Association: Anyone who’s been convicted of an assault “will never drive a taxi in Halifax again. There’s no exceptions for that.”

Except, apparently, there are. Just 10 weeks after the permanent revocation of his cab-driving abilities, Mamadiev appeared before the city’s Appeals Standing Committee arguing for the reinstatement of his license. His lawyer claimed Mamadiev had been deemed at a low risk to reoffend. Metro reported at the time that three of the four councillors on the committee seemed to consider allowing the appeal, until a woman in the gallery asked to speak, calling what Mamadiev had done rape.

She was denied, but the committee subsequently voted down the appeal, with the caveat that Mamadiev can apply again for a license in September of this year.

D had not been informed the meeting was happening: “I was shocked that as a victim of sexual assault I wasn’t notified, that essentially the person who attacked me and was found guilty of attacking me had what I can only describe as almost a retrial in city hall.”

She was only able to participate in the process retroactively, by writing a letter that she was told by city staff would be included in future appeal processes. “I cried tears of rage as I wrote that letter,” she says.

“We did not contact the victim in this case as we did not know who the victim was,” writes HRM spokesperson Brendan Elliott. “That would have been in the police file, which we didn’t have access to. However, in cases where we do know the name and contact information for the victim, we do make every effort possible to let them know about the appeal hearing.”

Assaults in taxis are not new—both police and victims’ advocates have suggested that recent numbers could have as much to do with an increase in reporting as an actual uptick in incidents. These kinds of assaults aren’t unique to Halifax either. Some cities (such as Toronto, Moscow and London) have seen the inception of ride-sharing services exclusively by and for women because of the problem.

Requiring taxis to have dash cameras—as in Toronto since 2005—would help, says Buffet. So would mandatory behavioural training for all drivers—another long-discussed, never implemented measure that may get more traction in the wake of recent assaults.

But the truth is, fixing the problem isn’t as simple as changing what, or even who, is in the cab. When she got in the cab that night, D says she did so under the assumption that the company’s name on the roof-light meant something—that it was safer than a stranger’s car, at least partly because some chain of accountability was in place.

The municipality has an undeniable role in shaping taxicab culture through its bylaws, and HRM is now studying whether to make dashboard cameras mandatory. That may prevent some future assaults, but once they’ve occurred it’s up to the city to do what it can to make sure those crimes don’t happen again.

“The reason I reported the assault in the first place was I want women in Halifax to be safe, and the standing committee’s responsibility was to uphold that,” says D.

There was no dash cam in her taxi that night, but the police were still able to investigate and lay charges. The Crown was able to get a conviction. “All of the right things were in place for me,” she says. “And city hall nearly undid it.”

Halifax police have laid charges in five of the 12 reported cases of sexual assaults by cab drivers over the last four years. Three cases are under investigation, and three were closed due to a “lack of solvability.” The remaining case was closed at the request of the victim.

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