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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Parking Enforcers Work Through Wrath of Drivers

Officers do an often thankless job to help keep traffic flowing. Annual meeting aims to rejuvenate and motivate the 600 participants.

September 30, 2003|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Here's the thing about locking up someone's car with what cops call the Denver boot: People don't like it.

So when you're out there on the boot detail, say those who have developed some expertise in such matters, it's best to go in pairs. One to do the actual booting and the other to watch the booter's back.

First, the teams cruise up and down residential streets, one partner driving and the other entering the license plate numbers of all the parked cars into a hand-held computer. If a vehicle's owner has had five or more unpaid parking tickets, the vehicle is considered "boot-eligible," and the license number bounces to the bottom of the screen.

"We both get out of the car," said Santa Cruz Villareal, a Los Angeles Department of Transportation booting officer and union steward. If the car owner is too belligerent or indignant for the two unarmed officers to handle, they either call for backup or slip away -- often returning to finish the job late at night, when the irritable motorist is likely to be sound asleep.

The intricacies of installing a Denver boot -- you really have to get down on the ground to do it, and it is better to do the whole thing after midnight, when no one's around -- were among many animated topics of discussion at the annual meeting of the National Parking Enforcement Assn. earlier this month in Los Angeles.

In workshops and over lunch, 600 mostly local participants learned how to keep cool after being insulted by parking scofflaws, viewed the latest fashion in uniforms and scorned the term "meter maid" as a description of them.

It was all part of a continuing effort by the enforcement officers, most of them minorities, to view themselves -- and have the community see them -- as professionals.

It's hard, said Lt. Betty Harris, who runs dispatching, crossing guard and other parking enforcement services in Los Angeles, to go out every day to do a job that most people resent.

"We're trying to get these guys motivated and rejuvenated," she said.

Many of the civilian officers have been with their cities for decades, issuing tickets, serving as crossing guards for elementary schools and directing traffic. Some came from as far as Philadelphia to attend the conference.

Among people looking to hop up a rung on the social or economic ladder, it's a job that offers a way in, a union position with salaries that average about $45,000 a year without overtime. Los Angeles parking enforcement chief Jimmy Price, a 30-year veteran who came up through the ranks, willingly shares that he is making $130,000 a year, and points to his own job as an example of how far an enterprising officer can rise.

Price has a lofty view of his job, seeing his parking officers as the means to keep L.A.'s businesses from choking in gridlock.

Parking tickets, he says, are a way to keep traffic moving, so goods and services can be delivered, customers can get to their favorite stores and Hollywood types can get together and schmooze.

Six million people rush around Los Angeles during the peak hours of the workday, Price said, more than half again as many as the city's actual population of about 4 million..

"Our parking system won't support that population," Price said. "So invariably people are going to choose to violate parking laws."

The real solution, he said, is to rethink parking in the city, making sure new development includes space for cars, and investing in public transit.

But in the meantime, those parking citations create a pretty good revenue stream.

Last year, Price said, his officers issued 20,000 to 25,000 parking tickets every day in Los Angeles, bringing the city an estimated $107 million.

That is not lost on local leaders, who trooped through the three-day conference to pay their respects to the parking officers.

"We certainly do appreciate you as our revenue enhancers in this great city," said Councilman Tony Cardenas, who addressed the group over a lunch of sandwiches and potato salad.

"You are an important part of making sure people follow the simple rules in life," he said. "You make things flow."

There was no valet parking, or even validated parking, at the event, which was held at the Radisson Hotel Midtown near USC.

Many participants paid $5.50 to park at the hotel (a discounted rate), but dozens more ringed the Radisson with white parking enforcement vehicles.

At a workshop on how to communicate with angry car owners, retired Los Angeles enforcement Officer Joyce Showers talked about what to do and say while issuing a ticket.

She showed a video in which a motorist curses at a parking officer who is placing a ticket on his car. The right way to respond, Showers said, is to explain the reason for the citation, and tell the driver to have a nice day.

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