Encompassing everything from red curbs to alleyways, from metered parking spots to handicapped designated violators, parking enforcement is often seen as a nuisance. But it can also be a means of identifying red flags: the car parked illegally outside a bank with the engine running, the truck seemingly abandoned along a parade route.
It is also not without its dangers.
On the political end of the spectrum, ticket issuance can generate everything from allegations of racism to falsified summons, with repercussions running the gamut.
When Eugene (Ore.) PD officers arrested Ben Bond following a confrontation with a parking enforcement officer, it set off a local firestorm with media coverage finding sympathy for Bond's actions. His offense? Paying the expired parking meters of strangers. Charged with harassment and obstruction of governmental administration, the 30-year-old admits to "plugging," but denies getting physical with the parking enforcement officer.
The sentiment underlying many of Bond's supporters is a perception that parking enforcement is little more than a means of generating revenue to help pay for the salaries of those who approved themselves raises. True or not, it is revelatory of the mood of many who are less enamored of such enforcement than the enforcers themselves.
In fairness, some cities are looking to parking enforcement to pick up some fiduciary slack.
Economically challenged municipalities-even some that have laid off cops-will hire parking enforcement officers, often referred to as "meter maids," to generate revenue. Foremost among them is New York City, which receives nearly $600 million in parking revenue annually. In 2009, Chicago leased its parking operation to a private firm, receiving an up-front payment of $1 billion in exchange for the next 75 years of parking revenue (and incurring the enmity of many of its constituents, both for losing prospective revenue and for allowing the rates on 36,000 meters to get jacked up). Atlanta outsourced its parking operation as well, obtaining a promised $5.5 million annual return in exchange.
Other cities, such as Louisville, Ky., have lowered the criteria by which cars may be "booted," or immobilized: Two parking citations on file is enough to find one's car in lock-down.
It's not just the little guy that's getting slammed, either. Some companies-including parcel delivery services such as UPS-may pay millions in parking tickets each year because in most cities there is no way the driver can locate a legal parking spot for each delivery. As one driver noted, "A lot of meter maids have figured this out and just trail our drivers all day long handing out ticket after ticket. The company has decided to just eat the cost of the tickets and deliver the packages on time rather than fight the parking problems in urban areas."
Not surprisingly, not everyone is so enamored of such vehicular vigilance. Some retaliate in person.
Seeing Red (Zones)
On the physical side, parking enforcement can be dangerous. As Jimmy Price, chief of parking enforcement and traffic control in Los Angeles, told National Public Radio, "We've seen shots fired at our vehicles. We've had officers carjacked at gunpoint. We've had individuals batter our vehicles out of frustration."
Such attacks are common throughout the country, and were the reason that in 2007 San Francisco sponsored a bill making attacks against parking enforcement officers a felony. And the New York state legislature extended a special protection to parking enforcement officers that was once reserved for police, firefighters, and paramedics. Physical contact resulting in injury to a parking enforcement officer is now a Class D felony in the state, punishable with a sentence of up to seven years.
Not that every affronted car owner desires a face-to-face confrontation. Some take the Unabomber approach.
Shortly after receiving an envelope through the U.S. mail, an employee with the Austin (Texas) Police Department became violently ill after a brown filthy liquid leaked from the parcel onto her work station and hands. Joshua Steven Solberg was ordered to pay $3,000 for having stuffed the envelope with payment for his parking fine and dog feces.[PAGEBREAK]Making the Job Safer
While statutes protecting parking enforcement officials are desirable, the bottom line is they only come into play once a problem has manifested. The trick is to head off danger ahead of time.
Parking enforcement personnel need to be reminded that while they may be dealing with an inanimate object most of the time, the vehicles' owners may become quite animated, especially when they suspect that their cars have been singled out for enforcement.
Such concerns find some citizens taking the city to City Hall.
A New York-based citizens' advocate who calls himself Jimmy Justice told the Village Voice, "It's an outrage when cities depend on parking summons for revenue. When they do, they are opening the doors for very serious abuses." Justice posts embarrassing videos of illegally parked New York City on YouTube. "When someone gets a bogus ticket, everybody knows this is just part of a giant racket. It's sanctioned mugging," he says.
Assumed bias and double standards were two of the reasons Wenatchee, Wash., Parking Enforcement Officer Marcia Avery made a habit of ticketing the illegally parked vehicles of everyone irrespective of their position in the community-including the police chief. As such, she was able to retire having been largely spared the indignities of others in her position who have been taunted with racial slurs, battered, kicked, or had scalding Starbucks coffee thrown in their face.
An additional concern for parking enforcement supervisors is ensuring that their employees aren't so near-sighted in executing their jobs that they can't see the forest for the trees. They also need to occasionally take note of why the vehicle is illegally parked in the first place. Using a license plate reader (see box below) to check if a car is stolen is one way. Another is to notice the seepage of body fluids from the trunk, if not the body of the owner seated in the vehicle. But more than preventing embarrassing episodes, they can prevent acts of terrorism.
In Europe, London's much vilified traffic wardens towed an illegally parked car from Piccadilly Square, then noticed that it smelled of gasoline and alerted the police. Their enforcement and follow-up prevented a major terrorist tragedy.
LAPD sergeant André Belotto notes that parking enforcement can have other collateral benefits, like finding murderers. "The reason he was identified was because I wrote a parking ticket for his Ford Bronco and impounded it for being parked on the beach after 10 p.m.," says Belotto. "I was enforcing the parking restrictions by the beach before going to break up a loud party in the area. The suspect stabbed the party host and left the party before police arrived. His Bronco was the only vehicle not picked up from impound that night. Talk about having a pretty good clue...
"I still use the parking ticket story as an example of how a simple attention to detail in one's beat helped solve a murder."
Making the most of parking enforcement means looking at tickets as more than just revenue generators. Indeed, sufficiently trained and inspired, civilian staff may become the eyes and ears of law enforcement.
Parking enforcement personnel trained to look beyond the violation might save an agency from embarrassing episodes such as ticketing the same reported stolen vehicle 29 times. Or repeatedly hanging a docket on a car containing a dead passenger inside. They can even mitigate terrorist attacks.
Personnel should be trained to recognize the schedule of those frequenting their routes. Who are the people making deliveries? What time do armored security vehicles arrive at businesses? Where are vehicles routinely parked and parcels dropped off? Why is a vehicle conspicuously parked illegally?
When parking enforcement officials carry out their appointed missions with tact, parity, and professionalism, their employers not only enjoy the collateral benefits of revenue, but more eyes and ears to their mission to protect their own.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
License Plate Readers
Parking Enforcement Vehicles