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Parking-ticket rage targets the messenger

San Francisco officials are pushing to equip officers with Mace and cameras to stem the rise of attacks by motorists.

January 25, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — James Hudson moves warily through this car-choked city, looking over his shoulder, bracing for the next tense face-off or retaliatory attack.

He's one of 350 often-harried civilian officers who perform what many motorists consider an outright act of war: He hands out parking tickets.

Especially in the congested Financial District, summons writers like Hudson are often considered urban predators, loathed for lurking shark-like on bicycles or in street buggies, employing such stealth tactics as chalk-marking tires and wielding prewritten tickets.

As a result, officers now deal with the sidewalk version of freeway ferocity: parking-ticket rage.

In 11 years on the job, Hudson has been cursed, had his foot run over, been shot with a pellet gun and had his knee whacked by marauding drivers. Colleagues have been spit on and assaulted, one with a baseball bat.

For Hudson, such violence comes with the job: "Some people don't know how to control their anger."

But officials are fighting back. After a rise in attacks, the city is pushing stronger protection for officers, such as requiring all parking-control vehicles to be equipped with Mace and cameras.

A bill being introduced in Sacramento would also make it a felony to strike any parking control officer in the state. Currently, penalties range from fines to community service.

"It's a public safety issue," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who is sponsoring the bill. "Nobody takes a traffic ticket with a smile."

Assaults on parking control officers in San Francisco rose from 17 in 2005 to 28 last year. During one week last November, four parking officers were attacked. Two of them were hospitalized.

A male officer was repeatedly punched and his car window broken. A female officer suffered a concussion and dislocated shoulder.

A 30-year-old suspect in the latter attack faces three felony counts. A judge raised her bail from $70,000 to $100,000.

Parking problems have sparked violence between motorists as well. In September, a 19-year-old man was stabbed to death in an altercation over a parking spot.

In Los Angeles, the number of attacks against the city's 668 parking officers has also risen slightly, with 33 in the last fiscal year ending June 30.

"Thirty-five years ago, when I was writing parking tickets, which cost two bucks apiece back then, irate motorists either questioned my heritage or my intelligence," said Jimmy Price, chief of parking enforcement and traffic control in Los Angeles.

"Now our officers face shootings, robbery, carjackings and physical assaults where a motorist had either a closed fist or a weapon. People have been hurt, with a lot of work time lost."

The Los Angeles City Council soon will consider a proposal similar to the state's to stiffen penalties for violence against parking officers.

San Francisco has 365,000 registered vehicles and 320,000 on-street parking spots, supplemented by 280,000 spots in public and private garages and off-street lots. The daily influx of 35,000 commuters can make snagging an on-street parking space in a busy area a frustrating roll of the dice.

Still, Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris has a warning for ticketed drivers: Keep your cool.

"People can't go turning their rage on a parking control officer who is simply doing his or her job," she said. "If you want to fight a ticket, go to Traffic Court. Don't beat up the officer. If you do, we're going to prosecute."

Like many of her colleagues, the 28-year-old officer injured in November said she rarely eats in restaurants without wearing a jacket to cover her uniform. After the attack on her, dozens of parking control officers rallied to demand better protection.

"Nine out of 10 people we meet on our jobs are angry," said the officer, who asked not to be identified. "People have quit, the abuse is so bad."

Lawanna Preston, staff director of Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents Bay Area parking control officers, said that in seven years as a Berkeley parking officer, she was harassed by doctors, lawyers and college students.

"People see you as an opportunity to sound off about the system," she said. "They're mad about the ticket, but it's also about how the government is always ripping them off."

In San Francisco, the 1.9 million citations issued last year generated $50 million -- the third-highest revenue source behind the airport and port districts, Preston said. Yet the parking officers make only $40,000 a year.

"They generate lots of money, but they don't get paid that much," she said. "The money is not going into their pocket."

Hudson, 46, takes the verbal abuse with a Zen-like calm. One recent morning, he chose not to ticket a motorist who had double-parked on a busy street while dashing into a store to buy coffee. Instead, he gave the man a verbal warning.

The motorist drove off, telling Hudson to "get a real job."

"He gave me a few cuss words," Hudson said, shrugging.

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