How to Keep Enforcement on the Safe Side
With the recent shooting deaths of police officers across the country, should parking enforcement officers be concerned? After all, people who issue citations have always faced a small segment of the general public that can react very negatively to citations. Has the recent backlash against law enforcement heightened this concern?
What are parking departments doing to ensure that their enforcement officers are safe? While everyone faces unique circumstances, there are also some commonalities in the approach to parking enforcement, whether it be university or municipal.
A conversation among representatives from The University of Texas at Austin, the City of Houston, and Texas A&M University offered an opportunity for sharing notes and strategies to help ensure the safety of their parking enforcement officers.
Parking enforcement officers (PEOs) must be actively engaged with the community. They traverse the same geographic territories each day, in uniform, and are easily recognized. Their highly visible nature gives them the opportunity to interact with many of the same people each day, leading to positive relationships with the community and positive reputations for the parking enforcement team.
In a city known for high traffic, Houston PEOs find that assisting with traffic control is greatly appreciated not only by motorists but law enforcement agencies, as well. It allows these agencies to focus on other priorities. At Texas A&M, providing battery assists, or even offering the occasional gallon of free gas, gives parking officers the image of helper, rather than just enforcer.
PEOs are in a position to be actively involved in community outreach daily.
At UT-Austin, for example, parking personnel have the opportunity to meet and give presentations to all new hires at their initial orientation. This starts to develop the understanding that parking officers are protecting parking spaces for those that have purchased permits, as opposed to being seen as a penal organization. The City of Houston uses officers to conduct media interviews when they roll out new parking programs, such as new meter features.
In general, anything an organization does to humanize the roles of parking officers and provide service to the community decreases the likelihood of an incident, while increasing the likelihood that people will render aid and assistance if something should happen.
Hiring and Training
Hiring and training are other areas of opportunity to mold the image of parking enforcement officers. The City of Houston moved away from filling PEO positions with ex-corrections officers, or others with law enforcement and military backgrounds, to those with more customer service backgrounds, such as retail. Their skills in dealing with the public are helping to soften the image of parking enforcement as an entity. At UT-Austin, the emphasis is on being good ambassadors.
There is a trend to move away from a title of “Parking Enforcement Officer” to something less confrontational such as “Compliance Officer” or “Parking Assistant.”
Training programs for the modern-day parking officer are much more customer focused. They can benefit from a multitude of classes and training programs that highlight effective communication, how to engage with difficult people, how to recognize when a situation is escalating, and how to maintain calm under stress.
At the City of Houston, outside personnel are recruited to train parking officers on manners and tactics of an ambassador, as well as on conflict resolution. Part of the program includes numerous simulations on how to react to confrontations and provide real-world solutions to create a safe climate for all personnel.
At Texas A&M, parking officers train on how to deescalate challenging situations and advise officers to leave an area if the situation becomes too stressful. Early recognition that a potential problem exists often allows PEOs to avoid the confrontation altogether. It is important that the parking officers not only recognize issues, but also feel that they are empowered to walk away from a situation with the support of their supervisors and managers. Management support is crucial to helping parking officers make better decisions in the field.
Uniforms and Equipment
Uniforms and equipment can play big roles in keeping PEOs safe. They should be outfitted in a manner that not only provides physical comfort, but also contributes to their personal safety. Insignias, patches, coats of arms, and symbols that appear militaristic should be avoided.
The uniform should be comfortable and visible but not made to represent law enforcement. For this reason, many parking operations have moved to a more casual look, such as polo shirts, allowing officers to blend in with their environment. Nametags or embossed names are also encouraged, as they make officers appear more familiar.
Equipment may include items for comfort, health and safety: reflective vests, gloves, hats, water, bug spray, sunscreen, comfortable footwear, and communication devices. For the City of Houston, cameras attached to handheld ticket writers are useful as both enforcement and safety device. It finds customers are less likely to pose a threat to parking officers if they know they could be caught on camera.
This also is useful in deescalating customer complaints at the office, as a picture can often clearly demonstrate regulation violations. At Texas A&M, surveillance cameras around campus are also used to review the safety of parking areas. Additionally, most parking officers carry radios with open channels to other parking personnel and local police. These radios should be monitored regularly and, if possible, equipped with a panic button that could immediately alert law enforcement.
Finally, transportation modes used by parking officers can add a layer of safety. Does their transportation protect them from the weather? Is it mobile enough to safely maneuver the terrain? At UT-Austin, parking officers use enclosed cabs (carts or vehicles) that can provide safe haven if a situation escalates. At Texas A&M, they use T3 vehicles to make the officers approachable, yet maintaining some separation from the public. T3 vehicles also allow an officer to leave a situation quickly if it is escalating.
Collaboration and Preparation
Collaboration between parking entities, state and local law enforcement, and groups such as the Department of Homeland Security is essential. PEOs have eyes and ears on the ground and need to communicate effectively.
At Texas A&M, they are partners in the DHS’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to raise public awareness on the importance of reporting suspicious activity. They also work with the university police department to assist in situations requiring legal action. Similarly, the City of Houston assists the Houston Police Department with sting operations for the misuse of ADA placards.
Collaborations with these agencies ensure that a parking organization is a good partner that helps with issues arising from the community and uses available resources to make improvements in areas outside their purview.
At UT-Austin, historical data have helped to identify potential “flashpoints” or scenarios that typically result in more confrontations. These tend to happen around major events where visitors are not familiar with daily regulations or the enforcement team. The patrons have paid out good money to attend an event (concert, sporting event, show, etc.) and typically are in a hurry to park and attend their function. Because they have no rapport built with parking officers, they are less understanding and more apt to react aggressively to a citation.
Knowing where and when these flashpoints might be coming allows an organization to tailor enforcement directives to meet the needs of a particular event. For example, a parking organization can proactively limit its risk exposure by working in greater proximity or in pairs, or maybe being more lax in enforcement efforts for particular events.
Safety does not have to be compromised for parking enforcement officers to do their jobs effectively. An organization can do plenty of things to ensure a safe environment.
As parking enforcement operations continue to evolve to be more customer-friendly, they will continue to become more integral parts of their local communities. The more in-tune a parking organization can be with its community, the better the reputation it will have, with benefits for both the parking entity and the public.
Contact Mark Kaligian, Assistant Director of Enforcement, Fleet Operations at UT-Austin, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Derrick Williams, CAPP, is Division Manager of Parking Enforcement, Department of Administration and Regulatory Affairs, for the City of Houston. Kay Phanor is Administrative Specialist in the same unit. Julie Villarreal, an Assistant Manager in Transportation Services at Texas A&M University.