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Robert Johnson: Lawman of the Cloth

Robert Johnson

Not many people get credit for both busting cabbies and saving souls. Robert Johnson, as a senior transportation investigator for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, runs sting operations to catch taxi drivers who bilk customers.

On Sundays he targets a different set of crooks. As the minister of a small neighborhood church in South L.A., Johnson gives his congregation the ammo to take down their spiritual demons.

Johnson started with the city 30 years ago, as a City Hall parking attendant under Mayor Tom Bradley. At 20, he was fueling and parking cars for City Council members. For the past 21 years he has driven unmarked DOT vehicles to chase down fare-spiking cabbies. Yes, there really is this much drama in taxi regulation.

The DOT has a secret weapon — its female employees. By day the women do their jobs in standard business attire. But on the night of a sting, they’re in Hollywood, wearing heels, stockings, skirts and a good deal of makeup. They act tipsy and hail a licensed cab.

Following hot on the taxi’s heels are Johnson and his team in an unmarked car, tracking the correct fare, watching to see if the driver takes a three-mile route for an eight-block trip. If the women are overcharged, the drivers lose their permits for three years. “They’re through — that’s it,” Johnson says.

They also sting unlicensed drivers, in tandem with Los Angeles Police Department officers. “Bandit” taxis haven’t passed DOT’s criminal background check and drug test, and their cars have not been inspected for safety.

To nail them, a plainclothes investigator or “operative” hails a bandit and negotiates a rate. Meanwhile, Johnson and three of his undercover agents lie in wait. When the operative and the driver strike a deal, the team moves in fast to make the arrest.

The lawbreaker’s car is impounded for 30 days, putting many out of business. “He leaves there either needing a cab or he has to walk,” Johnson says.

Licensed operators are big fans of the undercover teams. “Drivers call to say, ‘Thank you, because this guy’s been taking our trips,’ ” he says.
As for his other gig, Pastor Johnson leads his small congregation in an old building in a depressed area, where he easily talks about God and His nemesis. “It’s kind of an old-fashioned idea, but I believe in the devil,” Johnson says. “He is the one who influences folks to do things God has said not to do.”  

While his flock includes many law-abiding citizens, churchgoers include a former thief and a former gangbanger. The recovering sinners testify about their turnaround: “Several people stood up and said, ‘I know I’m saved because I used to be involved in different activities I’m not involved in, and I no longer go to places I used to go,’ ” Johnson says.

His Sunday job has rubbed off on his city job: He treats everyone as if they were walking into his church. Of the more than 3,000 bad guys he’s arrested, “Most of them will shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for treating me with respect.’ ”

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