Behind those parking tickets

Behind those parking tickets

Taxi drivers glare at Cheryl Fuller as she creeps by them in her City of Alexandria parking enforcement car on a recent Friday morning. They anticipate her next move warily. 

One waves and greets the parking enforcement officer, confident that his ride is parked legally at a taxi stand. But another cab slows to a molasses roll, stalling and flickering its break lights as Fuller, now watching in her rearview mirror, waits to see if it halts where it should. 

But the cabbie moves on. He knows the taxi stand was full, leaving no place for him to park legitimately in the Carlyle neighborhood of the city. 

He knows he is being watched.

With the taxis, its kind of like a game of cat and mouse, says Fuller, a parking enforcement officer with the city whose short physical stature juxtaposes the long list of tickets shes placed on the windshields of unsuspecting Alexandrians over her 11-year career. Shes currently the top producer of parking tickets in the city. A lot of them know me and they know I dont play.

Fullers job is often regarded as villainous a menial job carried out by miserable people who enjoy making strangers pay money for harmless violations. 

But dont tell that to Fuller. She emits a happy-go-lucky mindset, for one, because she sees it as a community service as well as a paycheck. Plus, she was raised in military family.

I was taught that any job worth doing is worth doing well, Fuller says.

She once ticketed a car blocking a fire hydrant when she noticed a house fire nearby. Fuller alerted the fire department, which ended up smashing the cars windows to thread the hose through and extinguish the blaze. It could have been worse. Harmless disobedience? Fuller thinks not.

Were really not out to give the tickets although the city [government] might like that, Fuller says, marking the tires of a Ford Explorer with modified golf club that acts as a chalking tool. We do generate a lot of revenue for the city, but its about compliance in parking issues for those kinds of safety reasons.

The parking enforcement division of the Alexandria Police Department wrote 66,720 tickets worth about $2.9 million between May 1, 2009, and April 30 of this year, according to an internal report. 
On Tuesday, the fine for parking in a space reserved for the disabled went from $201 to $500. Theres obviously money to be made.

We are probably the only city agency that pays for ourselves, says Capt. David Ray, who runs the traffic division. But its not our game to go out and get tickets and just produce revenue. It just so happens that there are so many people out there breaking the parking codes that it works out that way.

Ray says there is no quota, but there is a number that is considered average for one days work in the field.

There are 34 possible parking violations in the city, and few are voided about 3 percent in the last year. The state and city governments make the laws, the officers just enforce them a common misconception. With so many violations and violators, its no wonder why meter maids are some of the most despised employees in any given city, dealing with verbal abuse almost daily and even physical assault. 

Theres something about a parking ticket that people just dont like, Ray says. When you get a parking ticket, you walk up to your car and theres no one there. Its just a ticket. Theres just a ticket on your window so you dont get that human contact. I think thats the frustration.

Back in the Carlyle neighborhood, Fuller prints off four tickets in the span of about five minutes on a single block. 

Are you nabbing me? asks one man in disbelief, leaning against his outlaw of a pickup truck.
Fuller is affable. Sir, youre in a metered zone. You have to pay to park. Theres a sign right there.

Whats a metered zone?

You have to pay to park. Theres a sign directly above your head.

Had I known, I would have paid. Are you going to give me another ticket if I stay here?

No, Fuller says. Have a good day, she nearly cheers.

As it turns out, parking enforcement officers are, in fact, very human. Over a couple of hours, Fuller helped several people who were unsure of how to use a meter or where to park safely. She walked by cars that on more than one occasion were within three minutes of exceeding the meters timer. She walked on rather than wait for time to expire.

All of our officers do that, she says. Were not that hot and heavy. We never want to give anybody the idea that were stalking them.

What most of the public doesnt realize is the pluralistic nature of being a parking enforcement officer. They fill the gaps when the city is short on crossing guards it is short four or five right now and arrive at school posts no later than 7 a.m. to help kids cross safely.

They locate missing people, help block traffic for emergency vehicles and help police track criminals as the eyes and ears of the police department. 

When I can flood the community with as many eyes as we can as quickly as we can, thats a good thing, Ray says.

Back in her city-issued Impala, Fuller picks up her cell phone, cutting short a country song by Big and Rich. She coordinates a meter repair with a city employee, directing him to give six quarters to a man short-changed by the flawed timekeeper on South Columbus Street.

Im here to help, even if it doesnt seem like it, she says.