At times, motorists love them. At other times, not so much.
Traffic control officers in Minneapolis gain a lot of respect when they’re in the middle of an intersection during rush hour, or stradling lines of cars after a ball game.
They’re the ones in high-visibility green, waving flashlights and blowing whistles. They keep intersections open and keep traffic flowing. They give you a chance to get to work on time, or to get out of parking ramp gridlock after a big event.
But the members of Local 9 also know they’re not so popular doing the main part of their job: parking enforcement. It’s still a vital service but, yes, they are the ones who leave you a ticket when you let a meter (or your license plate tabs) expire; when you park where you’re not supposed to (a bus stop, fire hydrant, etc.); or when you park when you’re not supposed to (such as during street cleaning or a snow emergency).
Getting out of tight spots
“They’re not really mad at us,” says Angela Morris. “It’s directed at us, but they’re not really mad at us. Nine times out of 10, they’re just mad that they got caught.”
When motorists do get mad, “we’re trained,” Morris says. “We get training in verbal judo, and how to watch our posture, and things not to do, and things to do to de-escalate situations.”
On the other hand, there’s no explaining some people, says Jose Bonete. “There are some people who are, ‘OK, you’re doing your job’.” Then there are other people who start mouthing off, or flip officers the finger, “so why should I give you a break?” Bonete says.
Technology changes job
Technology has changed parking enforcement dramatically. Many streets now have centralized pay stations, not individual meters. Instead of eye-balling each meter, officers now get an electronic readout on the iPad they carry. The readout tells them which spots on a given block are expired (or not paid at all). The officers then simply cruise the street and, if there’s still a car in an unpaid spot, spit out a ticket from their handheld ticket writer.
The city now sends automated texts and phone calls to residents, which makes enforcing snow emergencies much easier, officers say. “It enables us to go through the route quicker,” says Ricardo Luna. “If we’re not out there trying to tag 400 cars, they’re actually getting the streets cleaner.”
But technology has also added to the officers’ jobs. The city’s 311 call center sends complaints in the officer’s assigned area – such as illegally parked cars or abandoned vehicles – directly to their iPad. “Sixty-two percent of the complaints that come through the 311 system are directed to us,” Morris says.
Some of the officers’ vehicles also have license plate recognition cameras. The state is still hashing out the data privacy concerns of such camera use, but they definitely help track scofflaws, Luna says.
The cameras photograph license numbers and run them through data bases to see if the vehicle has unpaid parking tickets, is stolen, or is registered to someone with outstanding warrants.
Further, because the officers are out in different neighborhoods every day, the city is beginning to utilize them to help other departments run more efficiently. For example, rather than send a housing inspector out to see if a violation has been fixed, a traffic control officer can snap a photo with her iPad. “Then they have a record of the time and date and violation,” Morris says.
Bringing order out of chaos
But no technology makes it easier to stand in the middle of an intersection directing rush hour traffic. “It takes training, it takes a willingness to do that, and you don’t think about the fear factor,” Luna says. “You have to be constantly aware. You just do it and you have faith and confidence in your skills. And, of course, you pray to God that nothing goes wrong.”
Before they step into the street, officers first size up conditions in all four directions. They study factors such as how traffic lights cycle, how weather or darkness affects visibility, what kind of bus traffic the intersection has, and how all those factors might affect motorists and pedestrians. They even look for potholes that they or motorists want to avoid.
Rush-hour traffic – in which the same drivers often drive the same route – is different from event traffic, which may have a lot of out-of-towners who are clueless about where they are and where they’re going, Bonete says.
“Every traffic flow is different, even on the same corner,” Morris says.
Sometimes, they just get lucky. Morris recalls the time she stepped in front of a car – which is the last thing officers are supposed to do. She had to, she says, because the driver (who was on his cell phone) was on a collision course with a pedestrian, who was running into the intersection (also while on her cell phone). “He would have taken her out,” Morris says.
Then there’s the time she had to stop an ambulance – because a fire truck was speeding into the same intersection. “So there’s some tough calls out there,” she says.
Always in the middle
Traffic isn’t the only tense situation. When they’re writing parking tickets and pull up on a scofflaw, “that person knows how many warrants they’ve got, the sheriff’s office knows, but we’re in the middle,” Morris says. “We have no idea. And if that person has 51 outstanding tickets, trust me, their escalation is going to be a lot higher.”
The officers also are called out for traffic control during presidential motorcades, big conventions, and even downtown bar closing.
“It can be entertaining at times,” Luna says of duty in the wee hours. “Your safety is always a concern, but it’s a job that needs to get done.”