Space snatchers

Fulton County enlists disabled to ticket Parking offenders

Alan Berk, 55 years old and disabled by a back injury for the last decade, recalls the moment about a year ago that ensured he would take a job with no benefits and no pay.

"I was at a mall and looking for a handicapped parking space when I saw this woman pull into the only available handicapped spot and park her car," he says. There were no handicapped stickers or tags of any kind on the woman's car. "Then she gets out and runs — she ran — to the door of the mall."

Berk, who sometimes must walk with a cane, flagged down a security guard and told him what had happened, but the guard responded that he had his hands full scouting for muggers and reporting thefts to police.

"I remember thinking that something had to be done," Berk says.

When the Fulton County Police Department announced last December that it needed volunteer handicapped parking space monitors, Detective Steve Rose says he was surprised by how many people wanted the job. Able-bodied applicants had to be turned away. Berk was one of two people who got the job.

In late February, he and the other monitor finished four hours of training, including conflict avoidance training ( "I basically hand them a ticket and walk away," Berk says) and were each issued an F.C.P.D. baseball cap, a vest and a ticket book. Both live in Sandy Springs. They have no set hours. Their job is to be on the lookout for handicapped-parking scammers as they go about their daily lives.

Most violations occur where people run "quick" errands — at grocery stores and drug stores, for example, because they're in a hurry and think they'll be gone before a disabled person needs to park.

Places of worship have merited Berk's attention, too. He paid a visit to one church after seeing an able-bodied person parking in the designated handicapped space only to be told "That's only for when we're having services on Sunday. It's not really a handicapped space the rest of the week."

Among the first tickets Berk wrote was one he placed on a truck parked in the white-striped area between two handicapped spaces at St. Joseph's Hospital. Berk says non-disabled people quite frequently park in the hash-marked area intended to be the loading zone for people with wheelchairs. As Berk was writing the ticket, he saw an elderly man carrying a woman from the other end of the parking lot.

"The man was 75 years old and his wife has cerebral palsy," Berk says. "His wife weighs about 90 pounds and was supposed to be in a wheelchair but there was nowhere that they could park to get her in the wheelchair because some guy parked his truck in the handicapped."

Frustrated and tired of trying to maneuver for a spot, the man finally just decided to carry her.

Berk always looks for handicapped tags before writing a ticket, but even those won't guarantee immunity. When he sees temporary handicapped tags hanging on rearview mirrors he gets close enough to see if they're past their expiration date. Berk says he knows of people who've appropriated the red temp tags to use on shopping trips.

"Some people will even get their dead relatives' tags to use," he says.

Unthinkable? Not really. Berk believes that able-bodied people who park in handicapped spaces fit a certain profile: they are selfish, self-centered and feel as though the world owes them something, so it follows suit that they might have no qualms about palming a dead person's permit.

Another aspect of the profile might come as a surprise: they're usually elderly people who feel they've earned the right to park in a handicapped space. Berk says most of those he's confronted have said that they are disabled, but can't get their doctors to agree with them.

Berk will listen but isn't afraid to ticket, which costs an illegal parker $60. If it's not settled, the fine goes up to $100.

Not that Berk sees himself as a revenue agent for the county.

"I don't get up in the morning and put on my garb and go out looking for people who are violating," he says. "I'm doing it because it's an opportunity for me as a disabled person to provide a service and to give back."??