California Looks to Curb Meter-Maid Assaults
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
No one likes getting a parking ticket. It's especially annoying when you get to your car just as the parking officer is writing out that ticket. In California, some motorists have gone way beyond cursing and yelling. They are physically attacking these parking officers. And lawmakers are being urged to do something to stop the violence.
Claudia Peschiutta reports from Los Angeles.
CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA: Parking tickets often bring out the worst in people. In L.A., traffic officers have been threatened, spit on, even punched.
Mr. DON SHERMAN(ph) (Traffic Officer): I had this woman. It wasn't exactly a fight. She struck me.
PESCHIUTTA: Veteran traffic officer Don Sherman says he was having the woman's car impounded.
Mr. SHERMAN: She turned around and pow, she hit me.
PESCHIUTTA: Assaults have spiked in L.A. There were only three reported in 2005. The figure jumped to 43 last year.
Mr. JIMMY PRICE (Chief Parking Enforcement and Traffic Control, Los Angeles): And so we became alarmed when we received 18 battery cases in '06.
PESCHIUTTA: Jimmy Price is the city's parking enforcement chief.
Mr. PRICE: 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.
PESCHIUTTA: In San Francisco, assaults on parking control officers doubled from 2005 to last year. The rise in violence convinced Assemblyman Mark Leno offenders need to be punished more severely. The San Francisco Democrat set out to allow this kind of assault to be prosecuted as a felony.
Mr. MARK LENO (Chairman, Assembly Public Safety Committee): People don't think it's a crime, a serious crime at that. We want to remind them that it is.
PESCHIUTTA: So far, Leno isn't getting what he wants. He says a legislative committee refused to support his bill because it might have added to the overcrowding in the state's prison system. For now, Leno is pursuing an increase in the fine and says he'll try for tougher sentences later.
The Service Employees International Union in L.A. supports Leno's bill but also wants more done on the local level.
Julie Butcher, one of the union's regional directors, says there needs to be a better and quicker police response when traffic officers are assaulted. And she wants to see attackers prosecuted.
Ms. JULIE BUTCHER (Service Employees International Union): I've had traffic officers show me posters of canine dogs that they believe have more rights and more protections than traffic officers do. If you attack a canine dog, you're in big trouble. Right now, if you attack a traffic officer, it's unclear what happens. And we don't believe that there's enough of a push on the part of the city to keep these workers safe.
PESCHIUTTA: The L.A. Department of Transportation has been working with the union and the LAPD to develop guidelines for responding to assaults. Traffic officers are issued pepper spray as a weapon of last resort and they're trained to calm confrontational drivers with verbal judo.
Lieutenant DEVIN FARFAN(ph) (Training Division, Transportation Department, Los Angeles): The officers have to exercise good judgment. They have to learn how to read body language and recognize when whatever they're saying is not appealing to the citizen.
PESCHIUTTA: Devin Farfan is a lieutenant in the training division of L.A.'s Transportation Department. Farfan says it's hard to teach officers not to take the insults personally.
Lt. FARFAN: Basically, that's probably the toughest transition an officer makes, is to recognize that they're not talking to the person, but they're actually talking to the uniform.
PESCHIUTTA: Traffic officer Minda Lee Jennings(ph) says she covers her uniform with a jacket when she goes to lunch.
Ms. MINDA LEE JENNINGS (Traffic Officer): Either they'll spit in your food or they'll give you the smirk. The service is not the same when you're wearing this uniform as opposed to when you're wearing a jacket.
PESCHIUTTA: Getting past the velvet rope at a Hollywood hotspot might be easier than scoring an interview with a traffic officer on the streets of L.A.
(Soundbite of cars)
PESCHIUTTA: The Transportation Department does not allow reporters to go on ride-alongs with traffic officers. There's a list of journalists who've asked, but being on this list does not get you in. So I stalk officers in downtown L.A. until I find one who agrees to be interviewed. Officer Lopez, who refuses to give his first name, is issuing a ticket to a minivan on Figueroa Street.
(Soundbite of paper tearing)
Mr. LOPEZ (Traffic Officer): There goes the ticket.
PESCHIUTTA: Despite the verbal abuse he gets on the job, Officer Lopez says he likes what he does.
Mr. LOPEZ: It's a great job. I mean, being outdoors is the best, you know. When you have a job like that and you get to enjoy the job, and you enjoy the weather, you know, it's just perfect. That's the only word I could think of - perfect.
PESCHIUTTA: Too bad drivers' dispositions aren't as funny as the weather.
For NPR News, I'm Claudia Peschiutta.
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