Slowly weaving his way in and out of campus back roads, University Police Officer David St. Cyr is becoming quite familiar with the parking habits of University students and staff.
He can even describe the owners of many vehicles parked in designated handicapped spaces — but his familiarity doesn’t stem from routine patrols.
About two and a half months ago, St. Cyr began taking a closer look at the simple blue or red handicap placards dangling from the rearview mirrors of University motorists.
He was astonished by what he found.
After spotting a student sprinting to class from a car displaying a placard, St. Cyr became suspicious.
“After that, I wondered if there were a few more people doing this,” St. Cyr said.
It turns out there were a lot more.
University Police Sgt. Joe May said that in the past, the precinct would bust about three people a year for displaying fraudulent placards.
Now, St. Cyr issues about two to three such citations a day.
“When he first started doing the checks, I was shocked that the permits were being so misused,” May said. “I figured there were maybe five to seven being misused on the entire campus.”
The misused placards are compounding parking problems across campus, St. Cyr said. Because of the abuse, handicapped motorists are forced to park in metered areas, where they can park all day for free. With metered spots overflowing, students and staff are left with a lack of short-term parking.
St. Cyr’s new patrol, which he estimated takes about two hours of his eight-hour shift, is also easing parking stress in the disabled community.
About 5 percent of students and 8 percent of staff at the University report a disability, said Sue Kroeger, director of Disability Services. To accommodate those numbers, 358 handicap parking spots dot the campus.
“The disabled community has a legal reason to have these spaces,” Kroeger said.
When St. Cyr suspects misuse, he runs a check on the ownership of the vehicle and the placard; he then runs the name through the student-staff directory.
In his short time doing the checks, St. Cyr has compiled composite characteristics of cars bearing illegal placards.
Placards bearing a particular numeric sequence were likely issued a long time ago and most likely belong to an older person.
When he sees such tags, St. Cyr scans the inside of the vehicle for clues.
“If they have CDs of Church or Prodigy, there is a pretty good chance the tag is not being used by who it is issued for,” St. Cyr said.
Also, he said, things like contact lens supplies or other items generally associated with younger people can tip him off.
“This one here has a Tweety Bird hat in it,” he said, pointing to a suspiciously parked car. “Usually someone who is 50 or 60 years old doesn’t wear a hat with Tweety Bird on it.”
Though he said he has cited two or three staff members, St. Cyr said he generally encounters student abusers.
The placards the abusers use either turn up as stolen or were issued to a family member. Many times, the placard was issued to a deceased grandparent of the offending student.
In one particular instance, St. Cyr called the owner of a handicapped placard that he found displayed in a parked car.
When he called the rightful owner, she told him the placard had been stolen two years prior. St. Cyr then spoke with the guilty student; the culprit was the woman’s grandson, who eventually admitted to stealing the placard.
St. Cyr said he suspects many students resort to parking illegally because they don’t want to pay the quarterly parking fee or are drawn by the convenience and close proximity of designated handicapped spaces.
If caught, perpetrators pay a $500 fine, plus a $77 court fee; parking in a designated handicapped spot without a placard incurs a $200 fine. According to University Parking and Transportation Services, students pay an average of $90 for quarterly contract parking.
But Bob Baker, director of Parking and Transit, suggests much stiffer penalties for those illegally using handicap placards.
“They should lock up those people and throw away the key,” he said. “I have no sympathy toward these kinds of people.”
Apparently, St. Cyr’s crusade is catching the attention of other police departments around the metro area. Because he appears to be the first officer in the area to be so comprehensive in his efforts, he has received calls from many area precincts for tips on busting the misleading motorists.
St. Cyr believes many placards go unchecked because officers do not understand the proper steps to uncovering false ones.