The Parking Police Academy

How regular folks learn the thankless, sometimes dangerous, metier of meter monitoring

"This is where you will spend the next two weeks of your life," the blue-shirted Jeanie Slominski tells her new class of 10 recruits. "It is not a nice place. It is not a comfortable place."
Slominski is standing at the front of a decrepit room deep inside the Department of Parking and Traffic's (DPT) enforcement headquarters at the Hall of Justice. Bomb shelters are homier. At least half of the fluorescent bulbs are burned out. The faux-marble linoleum is cracked and broken. On the pale yellow walls, various parking signs hang tagged with slips of paper identifying their violation code numbers. A chalkboard glares from the front, "Please do not steal from each other. Turn in any items found THANK YOU." And then, in smaller letters, "Goes around comes around." Slominski never acknowledges the message.

It could be a sitcom, this classroom of parking cops to be. If so, Jeanie Slominski would star as the good-natured but occasionally stern vet, caricatured by her feathered brown hair, her large eyeglasses, and the way she incessantly uses the word "cool." It's Slominski's responsibility to help turn ordinary people into parking officers. Meter monitors are not born, you see, they're made. Not in Frankenstein's laboratory. Not in the depths of hell or Gestapo-style boot camps, either. But in an intensive two-week training session led by a seasoned pro like the 52-year-old Slominski.

"We use the term 'PCO' [Parking Control Officer], or checker. We do not use 'meter maid,' " says Slominski, peering through her trifocals. To a room full of novices, this is the most important lesson of the day; for the class clown, the overachiever, the whipping boy, the bureaucrat, the solid man's man, the former bank loan officer, and the ecstatic but flighty woman, among others, this is the threshold indoctrination in civicspeak, the password that lets them into the ranks.

After studying department policy, traffic codes, and radio jargon for eight hours a day, and honing their ticket-writing prowess on supervisor-led field trips, the trainees must prove their mettle on a three-hour exam. Those who pass, and most do, suit up immediately. Next, they're out shadowing a veteran with their own loaded ticket book. Within a week, they're sent out solo.

That's when things can get ugly. While no one keeps an official tally of injuries and harassment, any parking vet knows the streets of San Francisco are mean indeed. Slominski often speaks of "the public" in her loose lectures. And though her breezy style in the classroom has earned accolades from students and supervisors alike, that's just the stuff of academia. What, if anything, could prepare a rookie for the steady barrage of motorists' obscenities, the spitting, or -- terrifyingly -- the outright assaults, like six men jumping out of a car and beating a PCO into the concrete?

At the corner of Seventh Street and Howard the 10 PCO trainees swarm around a rusting car and begin scribbling on their clipboards. They're on a field trip, issuing citations for practice. As with most combat training, they're firing blanks. Slominski marks each ticket with a red pen, making sure the students cite the correct fine and slash their zeros.

They've been there for less than 30 seconds when a bald man wearing a Russian River Jazz Festival T-shirt bounds out of the corner deli. "What's wrong with the way this car is parked?" he demands.

As a group, the trainees look confused. A few go back to making marks on their tags. Slominski slowly walks over and tells the man in a calm, quiet tone that he shouldn't worry, that it's just practice. "Every time you practice, it's $25," he shouts.

Calmly again, Slominski assures him that the drill is only a dry run, and that she wouldn't ticket his car because it's actually the car directly in front of his that's wrongly parked. Her words and her intonation placate the man. He returns to the deli.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old class clown Lavelle Richards (who asked that his real name not be used in this article) announces, "That'd be the guy I love giving a ticket to." In a mocking voice and making exaggerated pen movements, he says to no one in particular, "Oh yeah, oh yeah? No curb on those wheels, old tags. Oh, sorry sir."

Either Slominski doesn't hear Richards, or she chooses to ignore him. "That's good practice," she says. "That's what you'll be dealing with every day."

It's a lone incident. Otherwise, the field trip provides a false sense of security.

Back inside the classroom, Slominski lowers her voice and addresses her rookies with an empathetic tone. "Sometimes it's really hard," she says. "You've given someone a ticket and they call you every name in the book and some you've never heard. We do not get to curse back. We are not peace officers. We have no protection from the public."

Widely hated as the punitive face of city government, parking enforcers routinely absorb barbarous verbal and physical attacks. Drivers shout insults as they screech by or, worse, aim their cars for near sideswipes. Spitting is common; vitriol is ubiquitous.

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