Police cruise for meter cheaters using new camera technology
The Seattle Police Department's parking-enforcement division is unleashing its latest weapon: camera-toting sedans that record and catalog vehicles parked in the street, searching for violators.
Seattle Times staff reporter
• $35 per ticket for parking over time limit in Seattle
• 448,000 tickets issued from April 2008 to April 2009
• $17 million in revenue collected with parking tickets during the same period, up from $14 million in 2006
• $160,000 for technology to outfit two cars
If you try to game the parking system in Seattle, your chances of getting a ticket are about to go up. Way up.
Following the lead of several big cities, Seattle next month will become the first in Washington to roll out a new tool for finding overtime violators.
Two sedans packed with $160,000 worth of special software and equipment will prowl the streets, taking pictures of license plates and the position of each vehicle's tires. A later, second pass will automatically reveal which cars haven't moved, resulting in a quick $35 ticket.
When Sacramento, Calif., started using the technology in 2004, the number of overtime-parking citations more than quadrupled in a single year.
The new technology also makes it harder to fight a ticket in court — the photos don't lie, said George Murray, supervisor of parking enforcement in Seattle.
Although some residents may accuse the city of acting like Big Brother, parking-enforcement officers insist the new cars are more like ... Little Brother.
"We're not out to get you," said William Edwards, director of the city's parking enforcement. "We'd rather people comply than write tickets."
Two roof-mounted cameras on each car automatically take pictures whenever they detect a reflective surface: license plates. As the car rolls along at 25 mph, two rear-mounted cameras also photograph the parked car's tires.
When officers return after the posted time limit, the cameras work their magic again. If there's a match, a GPS-like monitor inside the car lets out a double-beep alert. The officer then checks the tire-position photos and coordinates — recorded in the software — to make sure the car hasn't moved. If it hasn't, the officer will hop out and slap a ticket on the windshield.
Some drivers try to avoid parking limits by rubbing the chalk off their tires or replacing expired pay-station tickets with new ones, Murray said. With the new cars, officers won't be tricked.
"If I come by ... and take a photograph, you'll never know if I did it or not," he said. "It keeps you honest."
The city issued about 448,000 parking tickets from April 2008 to this April, according to Murray. He said 50 to 55 officers are out writing tickets at any given moment, and each officer writes about 20 tickets daily. Tickets typically range from $35 to $44, depending on the offense.
Revenue brought in from parking citations overall has increased steadily each year, from more than $14 million in 2006 to more than $17 million last year, according to the Municipal Court of Seattle.
But the new technology isn't just about trying to issue more citations, Edwards said. "We don't want to write tickets — we don't," he said. The new technology will make the job of parking enforcement less tedious and dangerous, Edwards said.
Officers currently go through about 100 sticks of chalk a day. From their three-wheelers and Segways, officers mark tires at 5 mph with an extended golf club that has chalk attached to the end with a rubber band. In the past, officers have gotten rammed by passing cars and whacked by opening car doors. Officers often experience shoulder and elbow pain and pulled muscles when their chalking sticks hit at a bad angle, which can also result in a dented car.
"We're getting out of the Stone Age and into the technology age," Edwards said. He said other large cities already use the new camera technology for parking enforcement, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
Although Murray said he thinks the number of parking tickets in Seattle will increase, he expects it will eventually level off when residents become more aware of the technology and, as a result, become more compliant.
In Sacramento, overtime citations continued to increase for three years after the city began using the technology, said Dean Fujimoto, parking-enforcement manager with that city. As time passed, enforcement officers kept becoming more efficient with the technology, until they learned to maximize its potential in 2007, he said. Parking citations leapt from 1,204 before they began using the new system to 11,324 three years later.
Murray also said he expects the number of people who successfully contest their parking tickets to drop. Last year alone, about 20,000 people tried to contest their parking citations. More than 23,000 others asked for mitigation hearings to explain their side, according to the municipal court.
"When I go to court, it's usually my word against theirs," Murray said. With this new technology, he'll have photographic evidence to prove that a person was, in fact, parked somewhere for too long.
The two units are part of a pilot program between parking enforcement and the city's transportation department, which plans to use the data collected to see how many people are parking in a given area or even on a specific street. The information will be used in determining whether restricted parking zones should be added, Edwards said.
Although the new technology won't replace chalking — most officers will still have to use Segways and three-wheelers — Edwards said he hopes to equip more cars from the existing inventory with the cameras and software. But it won't happen right away because it's expensive.
Officials plan to start using the sedans next month, when Sound Transit's Central Link light rail opens. Edwards said he anticipates people will want to park illegally around the city's new rail stations.
For now, Murray said, he's training staff to use the technology.
"We're just driving around having a good old time," he said. "We're not writing any tickets, we're just learning how the machine actually functions and how cool it is."
Jean Guerrero: 206-464-2311 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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