Parking enforcement officer Richard Garcia has patrolled the streets… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
Richard Garcia was busy ticketing a Scion for blocking the street sweeper's path when a neighbor broke in with a question.
"Are you allowed to paint your own curb red?" Edsel Ortiz said. Of course not, but Ortiz would have to take it up with headquarters. Another neighbor on Mountain View Street in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood, however, wouldn't let it go.
"She said she's the homeowner and we're just renters," said Tony See, dressed in slip-on rubber sandals and shorts, pointing to a driveway flanked by telltale red. "She's a bad neighbor! She insulted us!"
The exchange had nothing to do with Garcia's job. But it underscored the fix our 570 city parking enforcement officers find themselves in.
In too many parts of L.A., there are more cars than parking. When the parking shifts to residents only — or the street sweepers lurch through, wiping out half the available spots — there's nowhere to go, and people take matters into their own hands, painting curbs, jamming meters and conjuring other underhanded tricks.
Garcia, who has patrolled the streets for 27 years, took me out Tuesday morning so I could see L.A.'s parking wars through the meter man's eyes. He sometimes feels like he's in a battle he can't win.
"There's just no more space and there's more and more vehicles," he said.
But he's also seen people behave badly just to save a few quarters. People who run over to prop open their hoods so he'll think they're having car trouble. Then there's actual abuse.
"I've had people get up in my face," Garcia said. "I was lucky to have never had an incident of violence."
Garcia appears to be an unusually even-tempered and fair-minded guy, which is probably why the parking enforcement bureau officials assigned him to show me what they do. But some of the regulations he was enforcing during our morning sweep through Westlake, Echo Park and Chinatown struck me as unfair.
A dark green Toyota Camry in the street-sweeping lane on Mountain View Street had its front right bumper bashed in. The car didn't look driveable. But disabled cars can't be left in the street, said Garcia, tapping a ticket into his electronic pad.
On Westlake Avenue, we pulled up to a red Prius with Missouri plates parked behind a street-sweeping sign. The sign was bent sideways and completely obscured by a low-hanging branch from what looked like an old redwood.
Because there was a visible sign farther down the block, Garcia wrote the motorist up. He said he'd report the broken sign, but that didn't help the guy with the $73 citation.
Therein lies the problem, and it's not the parking enforcement officers. It's the city's contemptuous campaign to shift its budget crisis onto motorists with outrageous fines.
The fines fall heaviest on people in poor, overcrowded neighborhoods like Westlake, where people live paycheck to paycheck, and $73 could be a day's salary or a huge chunk of a monthly Social Security pension.
Sgt. Kimmi Porter, who came along for the ride, said people were equally hostile when fines were $13 or $28. But Garcia agreed $73 is a heavy hit in this economy. "People are just going through a lot right now," he said.
Both officers denied up and down that the bureau has ticket quotas to gouge the public, as critics have long claimed. There are no performance goals, bonuses or wink-wink benchmarks, spoken or unspoken, they insisted.
However, knowing how organizations can enforce hidden agendas, I still harbor doubts.
Drivers email me that they're infuriated when they interrupt an officer in the middle of writing a ticket but are told it can't be canceled because it's already in the computer. Garcia said he can tear up a ticket if he makes a mistake, but it's against policy to reverse one for no reason.
"I give people breaks all the time," he said.
As we headed into Chinatown, Garcia said the real bear is not the fines or the regulations. It's the proliferation of handicapped placards.
Wheeling down Ord Street toward Alpine Street, Garcia ticked off car after car: "He has a placard. He has a placard. He has a placard." Every single car on the block had one.
And, if experience is any guide, they'll use them to occupy the parking slots the whole day through, Garcia said.
Many placards are legitimate, or at least authorized by the motorist's doctor. But people sometimes take them from a parent or grandparent after they die, which seems in awfully bad taste.
The parking enforcement bureau runs placard stings but they're tough to pull off. First there has to be a complaint. Then officers have to catch the driver in the act of parking.
They did manage to nab the manager of a Chinatown restaurant, Garcia said. The first day, she spotted the enforcement officer and parked in a paid lot. The next day she didn't appear, but the third day they caught her. "Her placard was registered to her mother," he said.
About 9:15 a.m., we turned into Bauchet Street, near the Men's Central Jail. Most of the spots were occupied, but the drivers were all at the wheel, waiting for the street-sweeping window to close at 9:30 a.m. "They're OK," Garcia said and drove on.
A voice crackled over Garcia's radio. A blue car on Innes Street near Dodger Stadium was blocking street workers.
"Six roger," Garcia responded, and we were off. Finally some action: a possible tow and impound.
When we arrived, however, Innes was empty except for a gold Honda with an American flag stuck in the back window idling at the curb.
"Just a minute, she's coming out, " the driver said, yelling at an older woman scurrying across the porch with two Chihuahuas on leashes.
"As long as you're moving," Garcia said.