Editorial: Spontaneous 311 whistle-blowing

The City’s new 311 call center was established to conveniently deliver useful answers to practical queries about municipal services such as, “Which Muni bus takes me to Corona Heights?” or “How do I apply for a neighborhood parking sticker?”

It apparently surprised everybody when phoning 311 with on-the-spot complaints about taxi driver misbehavior spontaneously emerged as a popular trend.

To The Examiner, it would seem that anything making it easier for the public to promptly blow the whistle about violations they witness by city employees or city-licensed professionals is positive. This unexpected outpouring of cabbie-complaint calls is a tribute both to the willingness of San Franciscans to take action to improve their city and also to the trust that 311 operators earned in just the call center’s first few months.

Not everyone favors this development. Taxi-business insiders offered the self-serving advice that cabbie-complaint callers might unnecessarily tie up the 311 service’s information-dispensing functions and that some complaints might be unwarranted.

Defenders of the taxi status quo particularly insisted that special hot lines were already established for reporting taxi passenger complaints, so processing such reports via 311 was yet another unfair expansion of ever-increasing scrutiny focused on city cab
practices.

While indeed other channels exist for reporting bad behavior by cabbies, obviously none offer the advantages of having an easily remembered three-digit phone number and being staffed 24 hours daily by live, caring and competent operators. In hindsight, it seems obvious that city residents outside at night with their cell phones would automatically think of calling 311 if they witnessed a speeding taxi narrowly missing a pedestrian.

A best-case whistle-blower example reported by The Examiner was that of a witness who saw a cabdriver park at a bus stop, dispose of a beer can and drive off with another beer purchased from a convenience store. The 311 operators passed the report to the police Taxi Detail, which promptly intercepted the driver and administered a breath test. After having been found to have been drinking, the cabbie’s driving privileges were suspended.

Admittedly, most typical cabbie misdeeds cannot be blocked while in progress. And not all taxi driver complaints will stand up under a fair investigation. But it is laudable that the 311 call center is installing a software upgrade to track and categorize complaint data for spotlighting outlaw cabbies and guiding future policy-making.

If the San Francisco taxi business is truly under ever-increasing scrutiny, it is because the public does not believe itself well-served by today’s cab system. And now 311 has the records of unsolicited complaint calls to prove it.

In fact, the surprise success of 311 as a cabbie-complaint hotline should be expanded to encourage citizen whistle-blowing any witnessed violation by a city employee or licensee.

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