City Howl Help Desk: Copping a free parking space

The offending placard.
The offending placard.
Posted: October 05, 2011

PARKING ain't easy down in South Philly. On rough nights, you might have to circle a dozen times and smoke a coupla cigarettes before you find a spot three blocks from your house.

Unless you're an off-duty police officer willing to bend the rules. In that case, Help Desk learned this week, there's a loophole in the city's parking enforcement big enough to park your car.

For most people, an illegal spot isn't worth it. Philadelphia Parking Authority officers stalk the streets. They lie in wait. Always watching. Ready to pounce.

That's why, when Jesse Spacco noticed that the car parked forever in the crosswalk near his house seemed to have immunity from the PPA, he wondered what made the owner so special.

The answer, it seemed, sat on the car's dashboard: A laminated card that read "Official Business: Philadelphia Police Department" with a police logo. More puzzling were the Florida tags, partly obscured by a small sticker.

We can understand why this was so annoying to Spacco. Aside from sending the message that police are above the law, the illegally parked car made the intersection more dangerous than it already was. With a car parked on a corner, you can't see oncoming traffic when crossing the street. What gives? Parked in a crosswalk for two months? Untouched by the PPA? On official police business? Help Desk was suspicious.

UNOFFICIAL BUSINESS: We called the Police Department's Neighborhood Services Unit (NSU), which deals with abandoned vehicles, and asked them to check out the car. Sgt. Frank Spires reported back to us that his officers had found the owner of the car, and it had been moved.

"It will not happen again," Spires assured us. "Trust me. He learned his lesson." Spires said his officers told the car owner he couldn't have his license plate obscured and couldn't use that "Official Business" card for private parking. But he wasn't ticketed. Police said they weren't sure if the car owner was a cop, though PPA officers said a cop's family owns the car.

Pleased that NSU got the job done, but curious, we called the Police Department to ask about those "Official Business" placards.

Spokesman Lt. Ray Evers told us that, ironically, the placards aren't official, though the department does use them. Each unit makes its own, he said, and they are meant to be used when an officer has to illegally park his personal vehicle near a crime scene or outside a court.

But if an officer is using it as a parking pass, that's "definitely inappropriate," Evers said.

"It's not criminal," he said, "but it's not being a good neighbor."

PARKING LOOPHOLE: Later that day, we ran into some PPA officers in the neighborhood and asked if they knew about the "Official Business" car? They laughed. Oh, they knew about it, they said, and so does everyone else.

A couple passed by and waved at the officers. As the couple turned the corner, one officer, noting the woman, said, "She was the first one to complain about that car."

But no matter how much neighbors would complain, the PPA officers couldn't do anything, they said. It wasn't even about the placard - it was because the license plate and vehicle-identification number were obscured. "You can't write what you can't see," the officer said.

PPA officers are forbidden to touch a vehicle's license plates, spokeswoman Linda Miller said. If it's obscured, they're supposed to alert police because messing with it could put PPA officers in danger from angry drivers. Of course, they deal with angry drivers all the time. But Miller insists there's a big difference between placing a ticket in a windshield and removing license plates.

The officers, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they see tags and VINs obscured all over this neighborhood and that they think it's usually police who do it because they know of the loophole.

"They know they're getting away with it," the PPA officer said, adding that police wouldn't ticket another cop for the violations.

Sure enough, the car Spacco complained about still had its tags and VIN obscured even after the NSU stopped by, a neighbor told us. And what's stopping him? The loophole is practically an invitation to break the law.

PPA officers are meant to alert police if a car's tags are obscured. But is that realistic? We spoke with Evers about police helping PPA officers with obscured tags, but, he said, police have way too much on their plate to be worrying about the PPA issues.

It's clear to us that PPA officers should be able to take stickers off plates and ticket cars parked illegally. And the officers are game.

"If we could remove tags," one parking officer said, "we would be removing all day."


Juliana Reyes reports for It's Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation. Have a concern about city services? Talk with us: howl@phillynews.com, 215-854-5855 or @phillyhowl on Twitter. And tune in to our live chats, Wednesdays at 11 a.m. on Philly.com.

 

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