The ma’am you love to hate

Posted on April 22, 2008 – 5:02 PM | by OldManFoster
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by Dan Macht

metermaidIf there’s one lesson from hanging out with six-year veteran parking enforcement officer Judith Lowe on her downtown beat, it’s this: Be cool and you just might get out of your ticket. Sometimes it is so refreshing for an officer to be treated like a person and not like a robot in uniform—for Lowe such luck occurs in about half of her interactions with the drivers she tickets—this can be grounds for a meter maid’s pardon.
“I don’t really base tickets on attitude,” Lowe said. “But if you treat me with respect I’ll be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and dismiss it.”

The lesson comes with a corollary; cussing, throwing a fit (or tomato—yeah it’s happened), and otherwise trying to intimidate Lowe or other officers won’t do a wit of good for your cause.

Here’s what happens: Rip up your ticket when an officer hands it to you; expect mail from the city soon. Drive away as an officer begins writing you up; better have removed your license plates. Say you know Ramon Gibbons, a transportation supervisor with the city, and he’ll invalidate the citation; you probably don’t know Ramon all that well.

Just be cool.

Another tip: Some meters on D street last for 10 hours, use them. If you’re at a one hour parking spot and decide to go back and feed the meter without moving your car, you can still get a ticket. In fact, since beats downtown overlap, getting caught is probably a forgone conclusion.

The city of Sacramento employs 43 officers to walk, drive and bike between city limits every day to enforce parking meters, residential neighborhood permits, and illegal parking next to a rainbow of colored curbs; each confer special privileges. Enforcement officers—or “parking Nazis” as some are derided—can put up with a lot of abuse for doing their job. Some have been spat upon, harassed at restaurants, or gotten their hair pulled.

But while meter maids are trained in arrest and search and seizure procedures they can’t actually lay a hand on anyone. Their only protection comes in the form of a police radio. In return for taking on the role of “The Man,” citizens can expect to find a decent place to park most of the time.

Parking tickets are also a good source of revenue for the city. In fiscal year 2005-06, tickets contributed approximately $6.5 million to the general fund, representing 2 percent of the pot that funds everything from parks to police. City officials and enforcers are adamant, however, that they don’t set ticket quotas. As Lowe puts it: “When I was trained I was told never say you can’t (stop writing a ticket) because you can. You’re just not going to.”

In fact, lately the number of citations from some expired parking meters has gone down. When the city instituted a pilot project last year to replace meters around Cesar Chavez Park with machines that let you use your credit card, the number of $25 tickets the city issued declined by nearly 20 percent. At the same time, revenue from $35 tickets—when drivers park in red zones, alleys and residential neighborhoods—jumped. The trend is likely to continue, said Linda Tucker, a spokeswoman for the city. Half of downtown’s 600 stand alone coin meters will be replaced by the new “pay and display” meters by next May.
Of the 43 officers on beats throughout the city, two full-time plain-clothes enforcers investigate disabled placard abuse.

Another two officers are responsible for immobilizing cars with outstanding tickets by affixing the infamous “boot,” which costs an extra $100 to remove. But installation for the boot comes free, jokes supervisor Tom Martin.

To work this job you gotta have a sense of humor. Martin said he was nearly run over twice while on the boot beat. And once, while booting a ’67 Volkswagen bus whose owner owed $1,000, Martin saw a man approaching crowbar in hand; luckily a police car had just rounded a corner near the scene.

Lowe said that irate drivers stop at nothing to make you feel as bad as they do when they get a ticket. “If you have something wrong with you they will pick at it,” Lowe said. Or they will talk about your race. “I’m black, so I’ve been called ‘black bee’; people say ‘you’re jealous’ for not being able to afford something; go back to the ghetto—stuff like that.” Lowe said that in most situations she has a pretty thick skin and walks away.

But sometimes the anger can really get to her. When it does Lowe drives around for a bit in her yellow scooter and cools down with the help of a water mister and some jazz from her ipod. Enforcement vehicles don’t come with A/C.

Meter maids also function as city representatives; they help direct traffic, report stolen cars, and offer directions like where to find the nearest bathroom in Old Sac.

Helping people is what Lowe most enjoys about the job. “I like being outside, talking and meeting interesting people I run across,” Lowe said. Indeed, J-Lowe—as the officer is identified by a sticker on her police radio—is pretty popular, when she’s not being yelled at. As she walked her beat with Midtown Monthly on a recent morning, a bevy of fellow parking enforcers, a UPS driver, more than a few cops, a customer outside La Bou café and a homeless man on J Street all stopped to chat.

When it’s pointed out that neither homeless people nor meter maids are particularly well-respected, Lowe laughs. “Yeah, that’s why we got to stand together.” Lowe said officers also frequently blow off steam by joking, and telling war stories in the break room of their headquarters on 10th street between J and I Streets.

That morning officer Lowe issued five citations without incident. But the lack of drama was a pleasant surprise for Lowe; we passed by two places where she can normally bank on rude citizens disputing their ticket: the jail on I Street, and, Starbucks.
After working as a parking lot attendant, Lowe decided to become an enforcement officer because it offered more hours to pay bills for her family. “I figured this would be a job where I could help people,” Lowe said. “I didn’t realize that they weren’t going to like me right off the bat because they see my uniform and hate me—even though I am really nice.”

Still, with the camaraderie that she gets from fellow officers, satisfaction from helping people and following the spirit of law, if not the letter, Lowe is happy about her career choice. Lowe said that when she started working the beat her trainer said the job can drag your spirit down. “I’ve been at this six years,” Lowe said. “And it hasn’t broken me yet.”

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