Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: With Lyft and Uberx car service, public should be protected from what it really wants

No cop ventures into Bal Harbour without danger nipping at his heels like a feisty Pomeranian, but the nervous tension on this sullen Wednesday must have been as thick as the tiramisu at Carpaccio.

An undercover operation brought the policeman into those mean streets. You can imagine the officer’s demeanor, seemingly so nonchalant, pretending to be a tourist as he slid into the backseat of the suspect’s vehicle, all the while secretly sizing up the desperado behind the wheel. He’d have been glad to have his 9 mm best friend along for the ride.

That’s what undercover cops do. What they do for us. They bravely don civilian clothes and false identities, and venture into the underworld to snare drugs dealers, arms smugglers, pedophile ringleaders, hit men, fences, cockfighting operators.

On this day, Miami-Dade police were after another kind of scourge that has been unleashed on our community.

This new brand of public enemy skulks around the community in special automobiles. They may look like ordinary family sedans to you or me, but a highly trained, sharp-eyed police officer can zero in on these outlaw rides, even in heavy traffic.

Detectives are reluctant to reveal their investigative techniques, but I have learned through law enforcement sources that the bad guys can be identified by large, bushy, hot pink mustaches attached to the front grill of their vehicles.

Pink, on the streets, avenues and cul-de-sacs of Miami-Dade County, has become the color of cold hard menace.

The cops running the Bal Harbour operation took along a hard-bitten plain-clothes specialist. You’re thinking FBI or ICE or CIA or FDLE. No, we’re talking RER, as in the Miami-Dade County Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you, but RER are the initials that strike fear in the heart of car service interlopers everywhere. Or at least in Miami-Dade County.

County regulators have gone to war against the likes of Lyft and Uberx, the unlicensed car service dispatchers that use smartphone apps to hook up passengers with independently owned cars-for-hire, offering a competitive choice to customers who might not be so thrilled with a local taxi industry firmly rooted in the 20th century. Both these high-tech San Fransisco-based ride services have been setting up operations in many metropolitan areas. (Uber alone runs in 128 cities in 37 countries.) Over the last few weeks, both have popped up, without official permission, in Miami-Dade County. But we’re not ready for techy.

So last week, undercover cops and a RER secret agent lured unwitting Lyft drivers into their web. (Lyft cars can be distinguished from Uber’s gang by those highly suspicious pink mustaches.) They hitched rides, then, once the transaction was completed, busted those diabolical drivers.

The Miami Herald’s Patricia Mazzei reported that at least three Lyft cars, mustaches drooping, were seized and towed away last week. Drivers needed $1,010 to retrieve their impounded vehicles from county custody, then faced up to $2,000 in fines. (Apparently Lyft is reimbursing drivers for any expenses they incur while waging the great car service insurgency.)

Not that Lyft wasn’t warned. County regulators fired off a letter last week to a local representative of the company, warning that the mayor’s office had authorized “police officers and RER enforcement staff to seize and impound any motor vehicle if there is probable cause to believe that it is being used to provide for-hire services without the required hire license.”

(I’m guessing that the California tech-heads who founded Lyft picked the name as a cute alternate spelling for “lift,” not knowing that “lyft” is an Old English term that meant weak, foolish or useless.)

The notion of allowing such as Uberx (the cheaper cousin to the fancy Uber Black rides) and Lyft to operate in Miami-Dade has the local taxi industry howling about unfair competition. Of course, the public’s demand for taxi alternatives might have something to do with our local cabbies’ reputation for dirty cars, surly service and resistance to the use of credit card processors.

Similar arguments over app-based car hiring have arisen in other communities. But Miami-Dade County has gone after Ubernites and Lyfties the way you might expect local law enforcement to go after lowdown criminal enterprises. Because in a county that in 2013 reported 229 murders, 1,143 rapes, 6,370 robberies, 9,497 aggravated batteries, 18,935 burglaries and 82,528 larcenies, this is exactly the kind of wrongdoing we’d want our detectives pursuing. (Someone might argue, however, that after 8,332 car thefts last year, the county has a damn urgent need for car-hire services).

The tone of a June 4 police report reflected the gravity of the threat represented by these shadowy characters. “Officers S. Malone and Dept. employee were placed at One Bal Harbour located at 10295 Collins Ave. to obtain transp from the transp app Lyft. Service was requested thru the app and Officers Malone and B. Rivera were picked up at 7:29 p.m. by a black 4-dr. Honda. They were transported south on Collins Ave. then west on 41st, to SR 112 to I-95 South to Key Biscayne. S. Malone and B. Rivera arrived at the Ritz Carlton, Key Biscayne and the fare totaled out to $32.00. The vehicle then departed and after merging onto Crandon Blvd. North, a traffic stop was conducted by MDPD Officer R. Draz. A check of the vehicle and driver determined neither were properly licensed to conduct for hire activity.”

Thank goodness, the driver didn’t resist. No shots were fired. No one was injured. No fights. No Tasers. No billy clubs. The police report stated the driver “was fully cooperative and posed no problems. All his questions were answered to his satisfaction. The vehicle was then towed and we departed the scene.” The report did not specify whether the culprit was tipped 15 percent or 20 percent.

The report indicates that the big bust required three police officers along with an RER agent. That might sound like overkill, but who knows what might have happened without that show of force. An angry mob in Bal Harbour might have pelted the officers with Perrier bottles. Anti-taxi thugs might have poured out of the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton and stomped the officer’s tootsies with Jimmy Choo spike heels.

Authorities can’t be too careful. If the specter of pink mustaches stuck to the grill of family sedans sets off a wildly irrational reaction in the county mayor’s office, imagine the craziness that might ensue if police corner some car service bandito in Cocoplum or Golden Beach or Indian Creek Village.

Don’t worry. County cops will either seize all the Uber and Lyft cars, or confiscate all local iPhones with car service apps. Because the public really, really wants to be protected from the services they use. It may be a lot to ask, but we’re depending on Miami-Dade’s finest to keep us firmly entrenched in the 20th century.