Disabled parking placards in downtown Oakland; are they legit?

A sign in Downtown Oakland directing drivers to pay for parking at a kiosk.

A sign in Downtown Oakland directing drivers to pay for parking at a kiosk.

A white pickup was parked on Broadway in downtown Oakland on Wednesday. It was there last week too, both times with a neon yellow workman’s vest hanging behind the driver’s seat and a traffic cone sitting in the truck bed. There was also a disabled parking permit hanging from the rearview mirror, guaranteeing that this truck can stay parked at the meter indefinitely, for free.

For some people, a disabled parking permit hanging on what looks like a workman’s truck might prompt a negative reaction. Others may be more kindhearted; maybe the driver had to transport a disabled family member somewhere. Maybe it belongs to a workman who got hurt. However, a quick glance down the row of parked cars might make anyone into a skeptic.

Oakland North found that 44 percent of parked cars surveyed in downtown Oakland and Chinatown on Wednesday carried disabled parking placards. That’s 107 of the 245 cars that were parked on parts of Broadway, Franklin, and Clay Streets, as well as Eighth through 14th Streets.

That’s an exceptionally high ratio, considering that last year the California Department of Motor Vehicles allowed enough placards to exempt 9 percent of the cars and trucks registered in Alameda County – about 100,000 placards – according to statistics provided by the DMV. The total number of placards in the system in California and in Alameda County have both roughly doubled in the last ten years. The tags hang from the vehicles’ rearview mirrors, allowing drivers to park for an unlimited time at blue curbs and meters within Oakland, the latter otherwise priced at $2 per hour.

Placard fraud costs the city income in meters and parking tickets. Furthermore, because cars bearing placards have unlimited time and don’t need to be moved every hour or two, fraud prevents parking turnover. That can severely limit parking options for everyone, disabled or not. “The parking placard needs to be of value and be there for people who need it,” said Bryon MacDonald, 64, program director for the California Work Incentives Initiative at the World Institute on Disability in downtown Oakland.

The city is also aware of this problem. “In downtown Oakland alone, several hundred vehicles displaying disabled person parking placards are parked at metered spaces on a daily basis. It appears that many drivers and/or passengers of these cars are improperly using disabled person parking placards issued by the DMV,” wrote the City Administrator’s office in a statement issued November 2009. The statement said that the City Council estimated fraud costs Oakland $150,000 in yearly parking revenue.

But it can be hard to tell when placards are being fraudulently used. “When you open the hood on this issue, there are more issues,” warned MacDonald about looking into the legitimacy of placard users. He’s an amputee with a wooden foot. “When I wear long pants, no one has a clue that I’m an amputee or have a disability,” MacDonald said. He’s worried that people might mistakenly believe legitimately disabled drivers or passengers are illegally using placards. Those with chronic fatigue or a mental disability, like a fear of crowds or tight places, have symptoms invisible to strangers, he noted.

Furthermore, MacDonald wondered about Oakland North’s counting, pointing out that many people pay to park in private lots downtown, but anyone with a disabled placard would choose only to park on the street, where it’s free. “The street parking nets a disproportionate share of placards,” he said.

Nonetheless, the city of Oakland has acknowledged widespread placard fraud in recent years, a direct result of the increasing cost of parking in some neighborhoods.

Yet Oakland police have cited only a handful of drivers for improperly using the placards since last July. Improper placard use is a misdemeanor that requires a court appearance and can result in a fine of a few hundred dollars. Three police stings netted 29 violators since July, 2009, about 35 percent of the 83 people who were questioned.

The stings – roughly four hours long – involve officers stopping placard users seen entering or exiting cars and asking them for identification proving that the placard belongs to them, according to Jeff Thomason, an Oakland police spokesman.

Most of the fraud is misuse by a family member of the legitimate placard holder or a person using an expired placard, Thomason said. However, the police can’t address the question of whether there’s fraud in the DMV application process. It turns out, neither can the California DMV.

The DMV requires a doctor or certain approved medical staff– this can be a nurse practitioner or chiropractor, for example – to sign the form that the applicant sends in. The DMV doesn’t require those missing limbs to have a doctor’s note; they may merely appear in person at their local DMV office. However, the DMV doesn’t have the staff to double check the roughly 2.5 million placards issued in California or call medical professionals back to verify signatures, according to Jan Mendoza, a DMV spokesperson. Also, the DMV can’t scrutinize whether someone needs a placard. That’s for medical staff to decide, Mendoza said. She said it’s up to individual cities and counties to prosecute fraud.

Pursuing any kind of fraud costs money and could give people a negative perception of the disabled, but there are other ways to address the proliferation of placards. Oakland doesn’t have to allow unlimited free parking to the disabled at meters.

“It’s a nice benefit, but I don’t necessarily need free parking,” said Susan Henderson, director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley. She said that it would be possible to give a time limit – perhaps four hours instead of the regular two – or make disabled people pay for parking, as is done in other cities.

Henderson immediately amended that by saying that the eliminating the free parking might be detrimental to disabled people who are in a tight financial situation. “People who need free or reduced cost would be dismayed,” she said.

“You don’t want to wreck the whole program because there’s some fraud going on,” Henderson cautioned. She said that what really irks disabled people is a car without a placard parked illegally in a blue spot.

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11 Comments

  1. Robert SF

    I don’t think someone with a prosthetic foot should qualify for a blue placard, and much less someone with a “mental disability.” If you can’t stand tight spaces, you shouldn’t be driving at all. Limit the blue placards to people with REAL disabilities.

  2. TjMSF

    Fear of crowds or tight places can get you a parking placard? And why should they be able to park for and unlimited amount of time? In Chinatown in SF the rate a placards using metered spaces is probably closer to 75%.

  3. StandingIsAnActOfWill

    chronic fatigue?
    Fears?
    disabled?

    Gimme a fjukkin break.

  4. Bob

    ” ‘People who need free or reduced cost would be dismayed,’ she said.”

    There are plenty of non-disabled people who need free or reduced cost who have to pay for parking. This is a disabled placard, not a low-income placard.

  5. scathingharpy

    rare is the day I walk along the sidewalk at 1800 harrison and not PERSONALLY witness someone step out of their car, put up the placard, and bob into the building for work. One guy actually works for facilities here! I would like to see more stings around the Kaiser Center.

  6. The city make a big noise about cracking down on outright fraud, where users cards wb checked against picture id. Then nothing more was heard.

    Excuse was first that parking meter staff were afraid, not authorized. Then the city laid off 80 cops, so couldn’t enforce didly.

    A nice easy place to start would be to require all city employees to provide a sworn statement affiriming or denying that they use handicapped placard to park when they come to work.

    Request vehicle license plate.

    Then have meter men/maids cross check every disabled placard vehicle license plate to the list of city employees as registered owners.

  7. 1stwife

    I think a few roving retirees with cameras could make a dent in these numbers. If caught, a simple explanation to the court about the disability would clear up the ticket. If the placard was used illegally, the ticket should be painful enough to give the lawbreaker reason to be truthful in the future. I also think that using the placard of a disabled person when they are not in the car should be punished.

  8. Suspicious Gettin' Over Cripple

    As someone with a blue placard, I don’t even know where to begin with this blog -or the comments. It’s absolutely infuriating when people are ripping off the system with these, and the perfectly abled think THEY are pissed? You’ve either sat out on comments or proven not able to put yourself in someone else’s situation for a second, but this is NUTS.

    Comments such as “…anyone with a disabled placard would choose only to park on the street, where it’s free” is not just crap, it’s downright maligning. I park according to where is best/safest and healthiest for me to get from Point A to Point B- not just where I can save a couple bucks. I can’t believe the actual Program Director has the ignorance & nerve to insult people like this: sometimes it’s safer to use a lot, or paying for a lot gets me closer to my destination.

    It would be even easier to not use my placard if they hadn’t removed the meters and replaced them with monoliths that spit out scraps of ‘parking time’ -when I see able-bodied people grumble about having to exit & lock up their vehicle, go halfway up the block to get there paper scrap (which tends to become litter in short order all over Oakland) and return back to their car/unlock it and place the paper in- then go off on their way?

    I see women with babies trying to do this & become so exasperated- ok, now cut off her leg & give her a heart/lung condition and have her go at it again. In the pouring rain. When people assume you’re leaving & scream at you when you return to put the scrap on your dash and don’t pull out of the spot.

    I’m not going to defend it as a freebie- I’m grateful for it to be sure- all I will say is that one thing that tends to come with a real blue placard is big medical bills. I pay $1,000 a month on prescriptions alone and when I go to the Doctor I have travel costs and the parking garage isn’t free, it simply has ‘blue parking’ near the elevators: so let’s not assume the placard is a welfare program. It’s astonishing to me that the people like MacDonald and Henderson have such incredibly poorly thought out responses to the situation!

    Just because Henderson doesn’t need extra time to get around doesn’t speak for the many people who are disabled other than her: who do need more than two hours, who aren’t abusing the situation: I’d love to know how a look at this situation of fraud- which pisses me off more than you healthy commentators, trust me 101%- becomes an article where the disabled are put on the defense and the people committing this heartless lazy sick perpetration are barely discussed in terms of REAL solutions.

    We’ve got a handful of jokers saying what is and what isn’t a disability (lack of comprehension for chronic fatigue and walking distance, really?) spokespeople who seem to have foot in mouth disability and the answer is ‘roving retirees’ -the damn placards are registered/numbered: that right there is an indicator as to whether or not they are expired -and if someone exits a vehicle doing handsprings? Ask for their proof regarding the placard. Since it’s a requirement, I CARRY IT.

    Oakland is such a damn mess. I swear to God. There should be stupid placards to hand around some necks here & I’d like to personally volunteer to cut off one of Robert’s damn feet and see how much fun he has getting around.

    Stunning…

  9. Karen

    This topic certainly roused a lot of passion. I don’t want to judge people on whether or not their disability is really a disability. I just want people who aren’t disabled not to use the blue placard. I say if you legally have one make sure you can prove the placard is yours. If you can’t you are busted and have to pay a fine. And cops can figure out how to have a few cops on this detail. Just do it over and over again 1 or 2 days a week; and don’t just do stings. Do it constantly. Finally we might make a dent in the fraud problem and raise some needed cash for Oakland.

  10. Dave

    I’ve also noticed even higher percentages of blue placards in Oakland’s downtown, especially around the County Govt. Center. What was once originally for people with wheelchairs is now handed out for all kinds of disability. The program has failed and we are all paying for it. Time to revoke the program and/or only let people with wheelchairs have the free parking and access right next to the building. I’ve seen to many slobs get out of car with a placard and don’t need it.

  11. Lynda

    Today I went to the downtown Oakland courthouse and parked at 11th and Oak. When I walked over to the parking kiosk to pay my $2 for 1 hour; I passed 3 out of 6 cars (in a row) hanging a blue disabled placard. “50% – Wow – that’s a lot of blue placards” I thought to myself. 20 minutes later when I returned – car #7 was parking. Also with a blue disabled placard proudly displayed in the window. A 30 something guy jumped out with his backpack – slowed down to return my stare of disbelief – and quickly walked away. Who are these 50% people with blue disabled placards? Who do you have to pay to get one? No wonder the City of Oakland needs money. If any one wants license plate numbers…I have all 4.

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