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The Dangerous Life of a Parking Cop

People who ticket people are people, too. A new film even makes them heroes, sort of.

Tom Barrett 2 Apr
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Someone once threw a cue ball at John Coelho while he was standing on a street corner. Someone else tried to drop a full can of pop on his head from a West End balcony.

Life's like that sometimes when you write parking tickets for a living.

There was the time, for example, that an angry motorist "kind of throttled me a little bit," as Coelho puts it. That serio-comic confrontation earned Coelho his nickname, "Johnny Valve Stem."

A parking enforcement officer always has to watch his back, Coelho says.

"You would think, my God, why would anyone want to do that for a living?" said Coelho, an operations supervisor for the City of Vancouver parking enforcement office. "But once you get used to it, it's not that bad. You have to be fairly thick-skinned."

In a new Canadian movie, The Delicate Art of Parking, the life of a parking enforcement officer is portrayed as one of constant abuse. Coelho has seen a preview of the movie and says that, while the comedy takes liberties with reality, there are times when the job does get a little rough.

In fact, he said, the city plans to show the movie to prospective parking enforcement officers and ask them: "Can you live with this on a day-to-day basis?"

Coelho, 47, says physical assaults are rare, but verbal abuse is something that happens almost every day. "After a while it kind of grinds you down."

The more rich, the more rage

Coelho, who worked on the street for seven years before becoming a supervisor, says that the tougher parts of town are not the worst for parking cops. He always enjoyed working on the Downtown Eastside, he says.

"I always felt comfortable down there. I got a lot less grief down there."

The real verbal abuse comes from the city's more upscale areas. "You get into an area like Bentall where you've got a lot of the suits working and for some reason they just get rather extremely disgusted at receiving a ticket.

"It always puzzles me how somebody driving a $90,000 car can worry about a $25 ticket."

There are some things people don't understand about the people who give out parking tickets, Coelho says.

For one thing, enforcement officers don't have quotas. While it's true that in "every block you're going to find somebody who's in violation of something," parking officers are more interested in giving out what Coelho calls "quality tickets," tickets that address a real problem, be it an illegally parked car that's blocking rush-hour traffic, or a vehicle at a meter that's definitely expired.

Which brings up another misconception: parking cops don't sit on meters, waiting for them to expire. "There's just over 7,200 meters in the city of Vancouver and if one's about to expire we just keep on walking because the next one's only about 20 feet away."

'Coffee's going to cost 40 bucks'

Parking officers have to learn to use common sense and good judgment. When he saw a vehicle parked in a no-stopping zone, for example, Coelho says he would always investigate the situation before writing a ticket.

"If buddy stops his car in the no stopping to run into Starbucks and get his vente, well that coffee's going to cost him about 40 bucks. But if I walk up to the vehicle and a mom is leaning over and her child is bent over and throwing up, the likelihood of me issuing a ticket is very, very slim."

Much of the job involves negotiating. Officers often respond to calls that arise from arguments between neighbours. Rather than write a ticket, the officer will attempt to work out a settlement.

"We have people who routinely phone us every single day for the same enforcement. They're retired, a lot of them, some of them this is just what they do. It's the highlight of their day, I guess. They phone in and rat on a neighbour."

Parking cops also find themselves becoming involved in problems that have nothing to do with parking. Coelho and his officers have helped victims of traffic accidents, saved people dying of overdoses and broken up fights. Sometimes, he says, people who are fighting will break it up and run at the sight of a uniform - even if it's not a real police uniform.

Why 'Johnny Valve Stem'

Sometimes the job calls for quick thinking, like the incident that earned Coelho his "Johnny Valve Stem" nickname.

A few years ago, Coelho was ticketing a car parked in a bus zone at the corner of East 49th and Fraser when he heard tires squealing. He looked up in time to see a big, old car - he thinks it was an Olds Delta 88 - run a red light and plough into a van.

Everyone involved seemed to be all right apart from being a little dazed, so Coelho told them to exchange insurance information. The Olds driver replied that he didn't have a driver's licence.
"I said, 'Well, why are you driving this car?' He says, 'Well, I know how to drive.'"

The two drivers then began yelling at each other. The Olds driver looked like he was about to jump back into his car and take off, so Coelho radioed for the police. He was, however, still faced with the problem of how to keep the Olds driver around until the cops arrived.

While the drivers argued, Coelho slipped around to the passenger side of the Olds and cut off the valve stem of one of the tires with his Swiss Army knife. As the tire deflated and the driver's girlfriend screamed from the passenger seat that Coelho was slashing their tires, Coelho ducked around to the other side of the car and hacked off another valve stem.
"I said, 'I'm sorry, you're not going anywhere.'

The Olds driver grabbed Coelho by the collar and made a fist.

"I says, 'You better make it good because this is going to be worth six months off if you hit me. I'm going on WCB - I could use a vacation.'

"He just kind of throttled me a little bit. He didn't actually hit me."

The Delicate Art of Parking opens Friday, April 2 at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in Vancouver.

Tom Barrett is a Vancouver-based journalist.  [Tyee]

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