If the Vice Squad Is Reduced to Cracking Down on Uber, Why Do We Have a Vice Squad?

So tell me again. Dallas vice cops have been running undercover sting operations to protect the local taxicab industry from an app-based private livery service? Know what? I don't think that's really a story about livery services. That's a story about the vice squad.

The vice crackdown on Uber, a web service that arranges rides, involved cops using smartphones to summon rides and then busting the drivers who showed up for violations of local taxi law. So work with me on this. Taxi regulations. Vice. Do you see the connection? I don't.

When City Council member Scott Griggs blew the whistle on this deal, it wasn't so much a defense of Uber. Griggs said he wondered how the city could justify a full-court-press major undercover vice squad sting operation just to protect cab companies from unwanted competition.

And why vice? Does vice not have enough to do or something? Has Dallas finally run out of good old-fashioned vice? Is greed a vice? Well, sure it is. But is the vice squad going after greedy people or defending them?

I have to admit, my first thought when I saw this story was, "Here comes Old Yellow." Last time I saw any cab news around here was early July when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city of Dallas T. Boone Pickens Memorial Taxicab Law giving natural-gas-powered cabs the right to jump the waiting line at the airport. That was good news for Yellow Cab, which had invested $8 million converting some of its fleet to CNG after Dallas passed the line-jumping law, bad news for small operators who didn't have $8 million to spend.

The make-them-use-CNG law was only the latest in a history of regulation by the city aimed at wiping out the small crappy cab industry, which, by the way, I loved. Why would anybody love small crappy cabs? Because those were the guys who would take you six blocks in Uptown. You felt like you were in midtown Manhattan, as opposed to the way it is now, where getting a cab in Dallas is like applying for a mortgage.

I will take a risk on a beat-up exhaust-belching cab that looks like it recently had a goat in the backseat and the driver is haranguing me the whole way about either Obama or Oklahoma, I can't tell, if that cab will take me six blocks and, frankly, be grateful for the fare. I don't like having to walk half a mile to a hotel, wait in line 20 minutes, submit to a credit-history check and then the driver harangues me the whole way in excellent English because I'm not going to the fucking airport. I do not want my cabs to be excellent. I want them to be there.

But here is another rub. We need to be careful what we wish for. If we tell vice to stop hounding livery drivers and go after some real vice for a change, what does that mean? In the old days the traditional list of vices to go after was 1) Gay men being gay, 2) bad ugly cheap prostitutes interfering with the operations of fine-looking high-dollar prostitutes, 3) gay men being gay, 4) dirty movies and 5) you got it. Do we really want to remobilize the vice squad on those issues now?

And that raises the question: What's a vice squad to do with itself these days? I actually have sympathy for them. We tell them, "Go out and raid illegal gambling joints." Then we bawl them out and say, "Not the illegal gambling joints where the mayor's father gambles, you bozos!" You know the old saying, caught between a rock and a hard place? Umm, second thought, let's not go there.

When we get done figuring out how to protect Old Yellow from unwanted competition again and how to make sure nobody can take a cab ride in Dallas for less than $75, then I think we ought to come back to the question of the vice squad. What is it anymore? And that would raise the philosophical and moral question, what is vice these days?

There have to be a lot of good cops on that vice squad. The crackdown on Uber could be a sign it's time to turn them loose and let them go do some police work.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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