Parking-garage cops: Whom are they serving?
Off-duty Seattle police officers who help drivers get out of downtown parking garages at rush hour can help promote mobility and safety. But they also can favor those exiting the garages at the expense of drivers on the street.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Looking to make a quick exit from a downtown Seattle parking garage at rush hour? Consider the garage at the northeast corner of Second Avenue and Union Street.
During one evening commute, a Seattle police officer working off duty repeatedly stopped southbound cars in the curb lane of Second Avenue to allow drivers leaving the garage to turn left into traffic.
This happened almost every time, even when the light was green on the one-way street. Gradually, traffic became heavier, partly due to the normal buildup but also because of the interrupted flow at the garage exit.
It’s a dance that plays out every day during the workweek, as off-duty Seattle police officers and city parking-enforcement officers guide cars from parking garages throughout the downtown area during the busy late afternoon and early evening commute.
The purpose is laudable: to help taxpaying businesses escort their employees and others safely out of garages, avoiding a long line of idling cars. Officers also help to prevent gridlock at key intersections and protect pedestrians.
But results varied when a Seattle Times reporter monitored three different locations on separate days.
At its best, the traffic management benefits all drivers.
During one late-afternoon commute, an off-duty officer, later joined by a parking-enforcement officer, efficiently managed a crush of vehicles at the intersection of Howell Street and Minor Avenue, many headed for Interstate 5.
Working outside the Metropolitan Park campus, both officers kept traffic smoothly moving in all directions, preventing gridlock that would have occurred without their presence. At the nearby Metropolitan Park East building, the parking officer stopped traffic to let some drivers leave the garage but made others wait.
But other times the traffic control tips in favor of people leaving the garages, which isn’t altogether surprising, considering that the off-duty officers are being paid by the operators.
The sworn officers wear their uniforms, generally with a bright yellow vest or jacket, representing the full force of police authority. Yet they also operate in an unregulated world, with no official rules and little oversight.
Outside a garage at the Amazon.com complex in South Lake Union, an off-duty police officer working at the Harrison Street exit during one late-afternoon rush hour faced 65 choices of whether to stop traffic to allow drivers to leave or stop the departing vehicles until traffic cleared. He favored those leaving the garage 44 times.
Dongho Chang, the city’s traffic engineer, thinks the traffic control provides an overall benefit and is confident the officers generally do it right.
“They’re professionals,” who are “trained and sworn” to carry out their public-safety duties, Chang said.
In the past two years, Chang said, he has received only three complaints about the off-duty work.
No city application or permit is required of garage operators to use off-duty officers for traffic control.
Operators arrange the work with the officers, although it is unclear how they are hired and what guidance they are given.
Two companies that provide off-duty Seattle police officers, Seattle’s Finest Police Security & Traffic Control and Seattle Security Inc., both said are they are not involved in the rush-hour garage work.
“A lot of those garage jobs are handled by individual officers or other ‘schedulers,’ ” Raleigh J. Evans, a Seattle police officer who is president of Seattle’s Finest, wrote in an email.
Finding out more can be as challenging as following the exit signs in some garages.
The garage at Second and Union apparently changed operators around the time The Times reporter observed the preferential treatment given to its customers.
A spokesman for ABM Parking Services, which appeared to be the previous operator, said off-duty officers handle “competing demands” — pedestrians, potential gridlock and backups in the garages. He said he would make a company official available to explain its policies and procedures, but the official didn’t respond.
A representative of Republic Parking Northwest, the company now listed as the operator, could not be reached.
When The Times returned to the site, a reporter and photographer watched from an upper floor as the officer on duty stopped traffic on Second Avenue to allow cars to exit the garage.
But after the reporter and photographer approached the officer and identified themselves, the officer began stopping some cars leaving the garage to allow traffic on Second to keep moving. He said he was aware the reporter had been at the garage the day before asking questions.
In the case of Amazon, company spokesman Ty Rogers declined to discuss policies at the garage in its complex.
A representative of Standard Parking, listed as the operator of the garage, said he couldn’t comment.
“We do use off-duty officers to help exiting cars at garages we operate for Amazon, but our contract there prohibits us from speaking about operating details so I’m afraid we can’t discuss this with you,” media liaison Michael K. Wolf wrote in an email from his Chicago office.
A Seattle Police Department spokeswoman referred questions to the off-duty employers and pointed to the department’s policy manual, which spells out rules for working off duty.
As a general rule, the manual says: “A Seattle Police officer has as his/her primary obligation a duty to serve the Department and the public at large.”
Chang, the city engineer who works for Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT), said it is his impression that officers view themselves as public servants and “keep that perspective in mind” when doing off-duty traffic control.
Referring to the difficulty of balancing fairness and safety, Chang said “hats off” to the officers for dealing with the pressures of the job.
Drivers act more civilly and less aggressively in their presence, he said.
Even though off duty, the officers have the authority and discretion to cite drivers for traffic offenses.
SDOT, Chang said, doesn’t monitor off-duty work at garages unless there is a specific issue or complaint, although it tracks traffic flow throughout the city.
Anne Levinson, the civilian watchdog who serves as auditor of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, said she wasn’t aware of specific problems related to the parking-garage work.
But Levinson has raised larger questions regarding off-duty work of any kind.
“The system continues to be fraught with actual and potential conflicts of interest, creates internal problems among employees competing for business, is technologically out of date, and lacks appropriate supervisory review and management,” Levinson wrote in a recent report.
The department, Levinson wrote, should replace outside management of secondary work, often by current employees acting through their private businesses, with an internal civilian-led and civilian-staffed office with “clear and unambiguous rules and procedures, using current technology.”
She also criticized the practice of granting special commissions to retired officers who perform off-duty work in uniform with guns, including traffic control.
“These Commissions create liability for the City, and provide little or no accountability to citizens when poor practice or misconduct occurs,” she wrote. “These retired officers may have retired many years ago, and while they must meet some initial qualifications, they are not required to go through the training active officers must attend each year.”
Levinson recommended the department end the practice.
In a written response to Levinson, Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey said he has ordered that retired officers not engage in security work. But he said they may perform traffic control.
As for internal civilian control of off-duty work, Bailey referred the matter to the city’s labor negotiator, saying the issue required bargaining with the department’s two unions.
NOTE: If you have a complaint or comment regarding a traffic matter in Seattle, you can call the Seattle Department of Transportation customer service number: 206-684-7623 (684 ROAD).
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @stevemiletich