Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ride gone wrong: no plan to post allegations: board

Sexual assault accusations would smear all cabbies

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You're a Winnipeg woman who likes to take cabs.

Good news? There's only been a handful of cabbies accused of sexual offences in 2011, says the Manitoba Taxicab Board. And if a victim complains to police about an alleged assault, a cabbie's licence will be suspended immediately.

Bad news? You may never hear of cases involving cab drivers accused of sexually assaulting passengers. Officials acknowledge few sexual assault victims come forward to complain.

Sexual assault allegations against a taxi driver can ruin a career and smear their reputation, say people in the industry. Publicizing details about the allegations could hurt the professional image of all cab drivers, they say.

But the risk exists.

About 12 women have come forward to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program at Health Sciences Centre to report sexual assaults by cab drivers in the past two years.

And one woman who says she was raped in August by a cab driver -- a man who has been charged with sexual assault -- says she wants to see the board release the details to the public when someone is accused of the offence.

Joan Wilson, secretary of the taxicab board, and Gary Stillson, the board's chief inspector, said in September there were no plans to post information about drivers accused of sexual assault on the board's website. They said posting such information could have a negative effect on drivers who have nothing to do with the allegations.

As of September, the board said it was aware of only three cases this year of cab drivers accused of sexual offences.

By December, that figure had increased to five, due to allegations two drivers had exposed themselves.

There are about 2,400 taxi drivers in the city.

"We have to be very careful about how we go about doing things," said Stillson. "Certainly, sexual assault is a tough one."

The board says there are measures in place to protect passengers.

Drivers must undergo mandatory criminal-record checks every four years and child-abuse registry checks every two years. Cabs also have cameras installed inside.

Wilson said the board position is it would be "detrimental" to publish the names of drivers accused of sexual assault and a decision to do so would have to come from the provincial government.

She said the provincial act the board falls under was created decades ago.

"Change the legislation, then you change the rules to the game," said Stillson.

"Right now, we have to play by the rules."

Those rules mean a zero-tolerance approach to drivers accused of sexual offences, said Stillson.

"If there is an allegation made against a driver of a sexual nature, it is the duty of the taxicab board to ensure that this person is taken off the road," said Stillson.

Stillson said police contact the board after an alleged offence occurs, and at that point the board suspends the driver.

"What the board has done recently is that anybody that has been charged with a sexual offence, whether it be stayed or not, has had their licence revoked," said Stillson.

But there are gaps.

The board's jurisdiction over drivers is limited to what happens inside the cab. If a driver were to commit a violent act outside of their job, the taxicab board can only react from word of mouth or through the records-check processes.

In the case of the victim who says she was attacked in August, the driver already faced charges of assault, uttering threats and a weapons-related offence.

Stillson said he couriers a letter to the driver and faxes city companies to know about suspensions as soon as he gets approval.

But unless a driver appeals the decision to suspend his licence, which takes place at a public hearing, it's possible the public may never hear about a sexual assault case involving a cabbie.

"Like all sexual assaults... it's one of those crimes, it stretches across lots of different industries, from cabbies to hospitals to care homes, and lots of places that we sort of shake our heads and go, 'What?' " said Winnipeg Police Service Insp. Gord Perrier, who oversees the sex crimes unit.

"I don't think it's really any more prevalent than any of those areas, but does it occur? For certain, it does."

Wilson said she thinks public notification would make people more aware of the risk of sexual assaults in cabs.

"I think awareness plays an important role, because I think when a woman gets into a cab she feels safe because that's what she's always learned, you know, take a cab home, or don't walk the city blocks at night because anything could happen to you.

"The last thing you expect when you get into that taxi is to be sexually assaulted," she said.

Stillson said he receives about 250 complaints from the public per year on a range of issues.

People with complaints need to come forward. He advises sexual assault victims to go to the police.

"People go the police before they come to the taxicab board. Most people don't even know we exist," he said.

"If people don't complain to the (Winnipeg Police Service), or people don't complain to us, or we don't hear about it, there's nothing we can do about it because as far as we know, it doesn't exist," he added.

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

                 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2011 A4

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