The Washington city government is considering giving some residents the power to enforce parking regulations, freeing the police for other duties. But the idea is raising alarm.
Few jobs are more thankless, or invite more cursing and murderous glares on any given workday, than that of a parking enforcement officer. But Washington, DC, wants to find 80 residents to do the job for nothing.
Such is the level of frustration over the traffic and road-safety problems in the nation's capital that a package of proposals under review by the District of Columbia Council includes enlisting private citizens to help enforce parking laws.
At the moment, the plan is just a single line in a 19-page bill that was introduced last month. The traffic bill is mostly about things like installing all-way stops at intersections and reducing the speed limit on most side streets to 30 or 40km/h. But none of that has attracted nearly as much attention as the resident enforcement plan, which has conjured visions of a swift comeuppance for scofflaws idling in bike lanes while also raising alarms about the potential for abuse.
"We wanted to look creatively at what could be done here," said Councilman Charles Allen, who introduced the bill.
If the plan is adopted, 80 residents would be trained to use their cellphones to snap photographs of vehicles parked illegally in crosswalks, bicycle lanes, fire lanes, bus stops and the like. They would then use a special app to submit the images, which would be time-stamped and geotagged, for review by a city employee. If the report is found to be legitimate, the city would mail the registered owner of the vehicle a ticket, the way it does for violations caught by red-light cameras.
Vehicle owners would have the right to appeal the parking tickets but would have little to go on to seek retribution: The tickets would not specify which resident enforcer had submitted the photos.
Traffic fatalities and serious injuries have risen steadily in Washington since 2015, and Allen said it had become clear to him that the usual process for citizens' reports — in which a witness calls in a violation, and law enforcement officials then respond to the scene, often arriving too late to see the violation for themselves — has been ineffective.
"It hasn't been working; no one can argue it," said Allen, who is the chairman of the council's judiciary and public safety committee.
While civilian volunteers are no replacement for on-duty officers, Allen said, enlisting resident enforcers "helps put more eyes on the street."
Many police forces have volunteer auxiliaries who help with tasks like crowd control at parades, and some cities have experimented with turning to citizens to help combat traffic problems.
In Seattle, a neighbourhood speed-watch program has let thousands of residents borrow radar guns for a couple of hours at a time to monitor traffic on their streets. For a while, the city sent letters — though not tickets — to the owners of vehicles that were observed speeding. But these days, city officials said, the program is intended more to gauge the severity of speeding problems in a given neighbourhood and help assess whether the police should have more of a presence there.
Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Transportation Department, cautioned against having the kind of civilian patrol that Allen's bill would set up in Washington.
"It's a different type of confrontation they're in, when they're documenting something for a penalty," said Zimbabwe, who worked for the District of Columbia transportation department for eight years before moving to Seattle this year. "Around enforcement, people have a lot of training to do those things," he said. "That's a tough role for a citizen to play."
That concern is shared by others who wonder whether resident enforcers might be too quick to report someone who might have a good reason for bending a parking rule.
"Perhaps it was an emergency situation or whatnot, or someone was in distress," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group focused on law enforcement policy. "These are extenuating circumstances" that an experienced police officer would take into account, he said.
The Washington program's success, Wexler said, would depend on how well the enforcers were trained and supervised.
Training is a big part of the citizen's patrol program in Malibu, California, which has 15 certified volunteers and four trainees, according to Mark Russo, the team leader. Volunteers there go through 96 hours of training over six months, provided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In addition to parking enforcement and traffic control, they learn about highway safety, disaster response, first aid and CPR. They are not armed.
Russo interviews each of the applicants and takes them on ride-alongs, in part to size them up. "We've had some guys who don't have the type of psychological profile we're looking for," he said. "You have to have the right people. You're always one incident away from screwing it up."
Mayor Jefferson Wagner of Malibu credited the volunteers, who wrote 9,140 tickets last year, with freeing up time for officers to respond to more serious matters.
"I used to serve as a reserve deputy" with the sheriff's department, he said, "and I can tell you from experience that half of our time was spent on parking citations."
But it is ticket-writing that most worries Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, a civil rights lawyer and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"Everyone is under the gun to write tickets, to show that they're valuable to the system," she said, pointing to concerns about pitting citizens against citizens, racial profiling and arbitrary fine collection. "The negatives totally outweigh the benefits."
No public hearing has yet been scheduled on the Washington traffic bill, which would go into effect next year if it passes. Allen said the city would collect data on where the resident enforcement app was being used and whether it was contributing to safety and then evaluate the program after one year.
Ronald Thompson Jr., a Washington resident who works at a car rental agency, called some of the negative reactions to the proposal "overblown," insisting that new ideas have to be ambitious to get results. He said he saw civilian parking enforcers as part of a larger plan to improve the quality of life in poorer neighbourhoods.
But he was less sure whether he would sign up himself for a job with all the trappings of a high-school hall monitor.
"I would be a good person to do it," Thompson said. "Would I want to do it? Probably not."
Written by: Adeel Hassan
Photographs by: Rozette Rago and Justin T. Gellerson
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES