Policing parked cars

Mark Sedgwick brings his law-enforcement dreams to work as a meter reader

Mark Sedgwick on his parking-enforcement beat.

Mark Sedgwick on his parking-enforcement beat.

Photo By Genevieve Worrell

Mark Sedgwick takes the light rail from the station at Roseville Road at 7:15 a.m. to Downtown, a five-minute walk from the city of Sacramento’s On-Street Parking Division on J Street, where he has been employed for the past year as a parking-enforcement officer.

Sedgwick has come to enjoy the 20-minute train ride. He might glimpse the reflection of his own eyes in the window glass as he looks out, but, once the light rail sets in motion, his thoughts flow freely to the hum of the electric train, and the familiar urban scenery becomes nothing more than a backdrop for his thoughts.

Occasionally, he’ll pass the time by chatting with fellow passengers. Most days, he said, “I look out the window and daydream and think about the next day.” Sedgwick might be daydreaming of a wife and children or merely thinking of the next time he’ll go fishing on the river with his father. No one riding the light rail knows.

Sedgwick, 37, has a sailor’s tan and a sparkle in his eye. He wears a white polo shirt with a Parking Division logo and a pair of baggy, dark-blue shorts worn with a belt to which he has fastened a flashlight, a radio transmitter that is always tuned to the police department’s channel, and his private cell phone.

On a sunny Monday morning not long ago, Sedgwick’s demeanor was one of ease and confidence, which seem to come with the job. He walked out of the J Street office with his black, leather-bound ticket pad tucked under his arm.

“Good morning. How are you?” he said, smiling and nodding to the men seated at small tables outside Tony’s Deli & Mart on the corner.

In many ways, the job as a parking-enforcement officer is Sedgwick’s calling, but not in all ways or even in the most important ones. When Sedgwick was younger, he wanted to be a firefighter or a police officer. Yet, after high school, Sedgwick said, “I messed around, partied and never kept my nose in college long enough, or I would be a police officer by now.”

Today, he takes comfort in the belief that he is working in a related field. “We get to help the police a lot because we see things they don’t, especially like this—on foot,” he said while walking his beat.

The reverence in his voice and his emphasis on the word “help” left no doubt that Sedgwick meant what he said. For instance, he tried to help when he witnessed a police officer on horseback having difficulty restraining a man with an open can of booze at the K Street Mall.

As if by duty-bound instinct, Sedgwick’s reflex was to step in and hold the guy until the officer got off his horse. Sedgwick’s voice remained filled with righteous indignation later, as he described how the man resisted arrest.

Sacramento’s divisions for on- and off-street parking oversee more than 5,400 parking meters and operate several parking lots and garages. Still, the thousands of parking spaces are frequently perceived as a scarcity and an inconvenience to drivers.

“The goal of the [parking-enforcement] program is to provide for a wide variety of parking needs with a limited supply,” reads a department brochure. So, officers like Sedgwick are often at odds with motorists who dislike the restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement by parking meters and by parking lots manned by cashiers.

At the same time, it’s all very much about revenue. During fiscal 2001-2002, the city of Sacramento collected $7.8 million from parking meters and parking citations and $16.3 million from parking garages and lots. Parking enforcement is a mix of law enforcement and revenue generation, a mixture that sometimes raises the public’s ire.

Sedgwick usually makes his way around town in one of the bright-yellow, three-wheeled scooters owned by the division. “Those things run like hell,” he said, explaining that if it weren’t for state law shutting down the four-cylinder engines at approximately 37 mph, “We would be out of control.”

Yet, maneuvering the scooter in the bustling streets of Downtown is the easy part. Interacting with those who plead or argue their cases is the difficult part.

“Generally, once we start pushing the pen, eight out of 10 times, they run out while you’re still writing the citation,” Sedgwick said. Usually, people offer excuses along the lines of “I was just getting a cup of coffee,” “I was just getting some quarters” or “It must just have run out.”

Sedgwick laughed at the last excuse. “The meter doesn’t tell us when it has run out. It only tells us that it has run out already,” he said. Not everyone offers excuses about their good intentions, though. Many people are just angry. “It still amazes me that people flip out that much over an $18 ticket. A ticket is a ticket. It’s going to cost you money, and it’s not going to make you happy, but some of them have gone so far that you have to call the police if they lay a hand on you.”

Last October, when Sedgwick was a rookie, he was in one of the alleys near the K Street Mall in his scooter when a bicyclist rode by and almost hit the scooter. The bicyclist, who Sedgwick blamed for the near collision, stopped and became enraged.

“The bicyclist started shouting, F you, F this, I’ll have you F fired from your job,” Sedgwick said, censoring the comments but still resentful of the bicyclist’s verbal abuse. The bicyclist got so worked, Sedgwick said, that he felt physically threatened and called on the police transmitter, which he carries for protection.

When the police arrived, he said, the bicyclist gave a very different account of what had happened. Sedgwick said he learned a lesson: “Nothing can be done unless someone lays a hand on you. So, it’s better to try to handle the situation yourself.”

Several awards adorn a wall in the waiting area of the On-Street Parking Division’s office on J Street. One award seems to summarize the division’s understanding of itself. The award reads: “McKinley Elvas Neighborhood Alliance is proud to present our Make a Difference Award to the City of Sacramento Parking Enforcement for your outstanding efforts in enforcing parking violations in our neighborhood in East Sacramento in 1995. Your efforts have dramatically improved the quality of life of our community’s streets and parks. Keep up your vigilance in enforcing the laws of our city.”

Though the On-Street Parking Division shares Sedgwick’s notion of contributing to a more civil and orderly community, On-Street Parking Program Specialist Ramon Gibbons said, “We are not police officers. However, we assist the police department, for instance, directing traffic, things like that. But our job is to write violations and to facilitate the turnover in the parking.”

Few city residents seem to appreciate that facilitation.

Half a block from City Hall, two elderly women waving a ticket approached Sedgwick. “We shouldn’t have received this ticket for parking,” one said. “We are handicapped.” The women explained that they had received a ticket for failing to display their handicapped sign inside their car while parking in the handicapped zone.

Yet, rather than tearing up the ticket, Sedgwick directed the women to the steep staircase of City Hall across from Cesar Chavez Plaza, where they could contest the ticket by showing proof of their disability. Step by step, the women, who were holding hands and pulling an oxygen tank set on a cart, climbed to the top of the staircase.

As Sedgwick continued on his beat, he spotted an expired meter across the street from the library on I Street. But, just as he put his pen to the ticket, the car owner appeared. “You’re OK. I haven’t started writing up the ticket,” he said. The car owner thanked Sedgwick, got in his car and sat for a moment with both hands on the wheel while looking intently up at the tanned parking-enforcement officer.

Later in the day, Sedgwick spotted a truck parked by an expired meter outside the library on I Street. While Sedgwick wrote up a ticket, a young man stormed out from the library, too late with his quarter. Sedgwick explained to the unhappy customer that it’s a traffic violation to feed a 30-minute meter anyway. “Leave that on there, so you don’t get another ticket, and finish up what you’re doing,” Sedgwick said.

Sedgwick hasn’t been physically attacked on the job, but he said a few of his colleagues have. So, he was looking forward to the upcoming, one-week course in self-defense, paid for by his employer. He seemed to take pride in the necessity of that training.

“You have to keep your eyes open—watch yourself when you’re doing this job. People can come up behind you,” Sedgwick said unemotionally, having accepted long ago the dangers that come with the job. As he wrote a ticket on 9th Street by Cesar Chavez Plaza, with his back turned toward the car, he said, “This is how I stand, so I can look both ways.”

So, he’s not a cop. Sedgwick still said he takes great pride in what he does, and he feels as though he’s playing an important role in keeping Sacramento an orderly city.

“When you go home at night, you can’t worry about somebody having cussed you out,” he said. “For the most part, people will just come over and not say anything, take the ticket and drive away just like I myself would if I was in the wrong.”

Gibbons echoed that notion. “The way that I see it, someone who has a good, positive attitude and who has good customer-service skills can communicate with a person who may be angry. I think if they have those two qualities, they will do an excellent job,” Gibbons said. “Learning the codes and procedures—they get training for that. But, if you don’t have the positive attitude and the customer-service skills, it’s not going to work very well.”

Sedgwick is far from alone in working an unpopular, under-appreciated job. There are perhaps thousands like him in the Sacramento area, people who ride to work with their thoughts and dreams, which they sometimes have to set aside while doing their jobs.

At the same time, Sedgwick is a civilian who will do more than is expected of him, whether because of his affinity for law enforcement, his desire to do more than just write parking tickets or a little of both.