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LAX Motorists Find a Sky-High Rise in Citations

More officers post-9/11 and fewer cars circling the loop mean a greater risk of being ticketed.

October 21, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Texas resident Cindy Levy had just pulled her rental car up to the curb outside Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport to pick up her 18-year-old son when a traffic officer appeared and started "yelling and waving his ticket book."

The officer reached through the driver's side window and handed Levy a ticket for parking in a no-parking zone -- she had stopped next to a red curb designated for shuttle buses.

The high school special-education teacher paid the $65 fine, but wrote a letter to the city agency that operates LAX contesting the ticket.

"I couldn't figure out what it was I'd done wrong," recounted Levy, who was in town last summer visiting friends. Then she realized that, in five passes around the airport, "I had seen numerous flashing lights of other people being stopped and I'm like, 'Gee, this is a whole racket going on out here.' "

More flashing lights on black-and-white patrol cars at LAX do indicate a pattern: Officers wrote twice as many tickets at the world's fifth-busiest airport this summer as they did for the same period last year.

The number of tickets took off when the airport agency hired 30% more officers for the LAX police force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The increase included many more unarmed officers charged with keeping traffic moving on the horseshoe-shaped access road to prevent a terrorist from pulling up to the curb with a car bomb.

The force's expansion also brought in more armed officers, who sometimes issue tickets.

In addition, city officials pay LAPD personnel overtime to patrol LAX during busy holiday periods or when the nation's terrorist alert level is raised to orange, for a high risk of attack. (The current alert level is yellow, for "elevated" risk.)

The police buildup came as the number of vehicles circling the airport's access road fell 20% in the last two years. The combination of more officers and fewer autos resulted in more tickets for motorists going to LAX to pick up family and friends.

Airport police issued 13,195 parking tickets in June and July this year, up 30% from the same period in 2001.

Officers also wrote 461 traffic citations at LAX in June and July for such infractions as running red lights or making unsafe lane changes, up 56% from the 295 issued in the early summer of 2001.

These citations rose in part because officials had removed meters from the facility's parking garages, freeing up officers to write tickets for moving violations rather than expired meters.

"We enforce traffic laws in here as the LAPD does on city streets," said Michael DiGirolamo, a deputy executive director of the city's airport agency. "There is a high percentage of drivers who, when they come into the airport ... they drive erratically. They run stoplights, don't obey crosswalks and make many lane changes."

Some ticket recipients say they have been unfairly treated. One wrote to airport officials after being ticketed at LAX for driving with expired tags on his license plate.

The Los Angeles resident complained that he had been driving around the city for six months with the expired tags and hadn't been cited.

Brentwood resident Martha Melvoin pulled up in front of Terminal 5 in July, left her Volvo station wagon running and jumped out to scan the crowd for her brother-in-law. An officer asked her to move, Melvoin said, adding that she got back in her car and drove on.

After a second pass around the lower-level roadway, Melvoin stopped to load her brother-in-law, his suitcase, backpack and fishing pole into her car. Then she drove home, unaware that the officer had issued her a $40 ticket for double parking. She is contesting the citation.

"I'm outraged that they are accusing me of something that I didn't do," said Melvoin, who argues that she didn't double park her car. "Usually if I get a ticket, I say a couple swear words and pay it and I'm mad at myself for a day and a half. But this one I'm not letting go."

Melvoin and Levy say airport police are ticketing motorists, not in the interests of security, but to raise money to pay the city's debts.

Officials say the $9 million or so in revenue gleaned from tickets issued at LAX flows into the city's general fund.

Airport police commanders say their officers are not required to issue a certain number of tickets.

"There is no quota," said Capt. Alan Hyde, commanding officer of the Airport Police Department's traffic services unit. "In fact, my instructions to all officers at roll call are that the citation is the last resort. We want them to manage traffic, not write tickets."

Hyde said there are rules of thumb that motorists should keep in mind when picking up travelers at the airport.

* First, officers typically allow drivers up to three minutes to load a passenger and luggage into a vehicle.

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