Taking Up Space: Houston police hijack scarce public parking for personal cars

I’m not sure who remembers or who read my original post regarding vehicles with police parking placards and expired inspections/registrations. But it seems that just recently, a local TV news crew has uncovered there’s more to it than I first found out.

KHOU-TV recently reported on police officers assigned to work in the 1200 Travis building, parking on the street with their police placards to avoid having to pay the parking meter. The problem is, many of these spaces are normally two-hour limit spaces.

The meter maids are either complicit with this state of affairs, or simply lack the spine to actually write parking tickets and cite fellow city employees for flagrantly violating the law.

From the story:

[N]either did a uniformed officer whose personal car sat for a full eight-hour day [have anything to say].

I-Team: “Must be nice, park all day, don’t have to pay? Is it fair that you get to park for free and other folks don’t, officer?”

Lois Holmes was quick to answer that question.

“No it’s not fair! If I have to pay they should have to pay,” Holmes said. “I don’t pay, I get a ticket.”

Which, of course, is the same reason I posted my story about expired tags and inspections–an average citizen is noticed with expired items, he/she gets a ticket. It’s the same deal with parking, which is actually a bigger problem because of the limited amount of on-street parking that exists to begin with.

But this is the part that really burns me up:

Turns out, HPD does provide parking spaces for its employees, and even offers a shuttle service to and from remote lots. Those shuttles cost taxpayers more than $400,000 a year to run.

Two-fifths of a million dollars to run the shuttles. And at least some of the employees feel they are above using them. And in fact, feel they have a “get away with it” card when blowing off the law that means they don’t have to use them.

(To get an idea just how much money this is, the city of Houston has taken in some $1.6 million per day on average so far in 2012 if I read the State Comptroller’s report correctly. So, $400,000 is about a quarter of an entire day’s sales taxes. I assumed the totals as of the time I downloaded the report were through the close of business on April 19, which could be wrong.)

Outrageous. If anyone at HPD is wondering why the department has an image problem, look no further.

Save Houston’s food trucks (from overly aggressive HPD officers)

A recent post to the Houston Press blog Eating Your Words discusses a baffling incident that almost feels like it’s straight out of the Twilight Zone. It involves local food truck The Modular, run by Joshua Martinez, and an as-yet-unnamed HPD officer.

Quoting the article:

“[The officer] told me, ‘You’re supposed to move every 59 minutes. You’re a mobile food truck,'” Martinez said, recalling the conversation 15 minutes after it happened last night. He spoke from the parking lot outside his food truck, which was parked on private property. “I showed him my licenses, explained that we are supposed to move every 24 hours and go back to our commissary.”

“He didn’t listen,” Martinez said of the HPD officer. “He just kept saying, ‘You’re in violation. I can give you up to $6,000 in tickets.'” […] “If I violated every health department violation there was, it wouldn’t be $6,000!”

The story goes on to say a formal complaint against HPD is pending. And for good reason; there is no excuse for this kind of disgraceful harassment of food truck operators by law enforcement. Especially considering that the officer did not name the city ordinance in question. The city’s own web page about mobile food units mentions nothing about this supposed “move every 59 minutes requirement.

Joshua runs a good food truck which I had the pleasure of patronizing at Canned Acoustica IV back at the end of August. I’m glad people like him are willing to stand up to this kind of flagrant badgering by law enforcement. I’m holding out hope that once the complaint is filed, the officer in question will be treated to some free weight loss (as in, being relieved of his badge).

A “number 1” ranking Houston can do without

CNBC recently reported on the worst speed-trap cities in the US. Houston was at the top of the list, which was enough to get KHOU-TV (our local CBS affiliate) to pick up on the story. CNBC used the website speedtrap.org for the raw data to generate the rankings.

It’s a topic I’ve visited before on this blog when KTRK exposed a very dubious speed trap on Shepherd Drive near I-10. CNBC refers to this investigation in the caption showing Houston (it’s a shot of I-10 near downtown on a stretch of freeway closed for some reason, as one of the HPD officers is facing the wrong way). I remember my blog post about this story as one of the rare occasions I had something really good to say about a law enforcement officer; specifically, Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino. (To be fair, he wasn’t very flattering towards HPD in his comments.)

Anyway, suffice it to say this is another area of distinction which Houston would do well to shy away from. I am reminded of Houston making the top of the “fattest cities” list (as compiled by Men’s Fitness magazine) back in 2001 through 2003. And I will admit at the time my figure was more voluminous than I would have liked (suffice it to say, I need not have worried about picking up the nickname “slim”). And it still is a bit, but I have lost at least one pants size since then (today I usually wear size 40, then I wore size 42).

Unfortunately, for this particular problem, I can’t really help out, except to raise awareness. And no, the problem is not motorists with heavy right feet. The problem is greedy local governments, and police departments willing to write tickets for the dubious “crime” (okay, technically it’s an “infraction”) of exceeding an arbitrary posted limit. Which, by the way, is usually set below the maximum safe speed. In some cases, quite far below.

Examples of underposted speed limits in the Houston area that come to mind (biased a bit towards my neighborhood and roads I currently travel or formerly traveled with frequency):

  • Jones Road from FM 1960 to Grant Road. Signed with a 40 mph limit, when the limit is 45 from the northern outskirts of Jersey Village up to FM 1960. This one makes no sense; the area north of FM 1960 is, if anything, less built up than the area south of it.
  • Jones Road from Grant Road to Lakewood Crossing Boulevard (just north of Cypresswood). The limit is posted at 30 mph here. While I understand Jones runs through a residential area here, it’s still a thoroughfare to Louetta and Texas 249, and almost everyone does at least 35, if not 40 or higher, through here. At minimum this should probably be posted at 35 mph (unfortunately, I suspect too many residents will balk at a 40 limit).
  • Briar Forest Drive between Gessner and Dairy Ashford (former). This is a former underposted limit but deserves mention because it’s one of the best examples. The City of Houston finally came to their senses on this one, after irate residents got sick of the HPD speed trap at W Rivercrest and/or E Rivercrest. It was posted at 30 mph, then 40 mph, then lowered again to 35 mph where I would assume they still are today. I would have liked to see the 40 mph limit stay but 35 mph is still an improvement over the original.
  • FM 1960 from Texas 249 to US 290, Texas 6 from US 290 to Clay Road. Posted at 40 mph, but it’s the de facto main drag for much of the area, and it’s still a major state highway. I’m pretty sure this used to be posted at 45 mph at one point.
  • Shepherd Drive/Durham Drive from Larkin Street (just north of I-10) to where an intersection with West 9th Street would be. I realize it’s short, but this could stand a slight speed limit increase to 40 mph, maybe even as far north as West 11th Street, if nothing else just to reflect the reality that people go a little faster over this stretch. Oh wait, then HPD couldn’t write all those tickets here. You know what, that’s too bad. I say let those cops (especially the “ticket champion” Officer Matt Davis) earn their living doing real law enforcement, not harassing motorists.
  • Stretches of W Hardy Road/E Hardy Road bordering the Hardy Toll Road between Beltway 8 and I-610. Given this is now the service road for a busy tollway, the speed limits need to be re-evaluated, along with the stop sign at Hill Road that’s probably a holdover from the days where the urbanized area stopped shortly outside I-610 (I’m guessing here, because I wasn’t yet born).
  • US 59 mainlanes through Humble (former). This was a notorious underposted speed limit at one time: 55 mph in a stretch that easily deserved a 65 mph limit. Thankfully, the City of Humble finally gave up on this source of revenue, much to the relief of the area’s motorists.
  • The Sam Houston Ship Channel Bridge (Beltway 8 over the Houston Ship Channel). Not only is the 50 mph speed limit here out of touch with reality, this is the most expensive stretch of the Sam Houston Tollway ($2.00 cash/$1.50 with EZ Tag, versus $1.50/$1.30 elsewhere). I can’t think of anywhere else where I can pay so much for the privilege of seeing a “SPEED LIMIT 50” sign. The kicker? There’s no way to enforce the speed limit on this bridge, outside of using aircraft (which, even if legal in Texas, is rarely done).
  • I-10 just east of downtown Houston (former). I don’t remember exactly where, but there was a stretch with a posted limit of 55 mph. Actually doing 55 mph was an invitation to get tailgated or have obscene gestures made at you. Finally, the city came to their senses on this one as well.

I’m sure there are others, but these come to mind most readily.

Nightmare on Shepherd Drive

I will admit Wayne Dolcefino drew my ire years ago with one of his investigative reports that had some annoying consequences for me personally. I’m not going to go into details but it’s been well over a decade ago now and it’s water under the bridge. Anyway, this is 2010, and Wayne’s latest report about the Houston Police Department’s dubious speed traps got my undivided attention for a few minutes yesterday. As a former courier I would frequently see HPD officers, almost certainly including the mentioned and shown “ticket champion” Matt Davis, staked out at the 700 block of North Shepherd, in both directions (as it happens, I made a fair number of my paycheck deposits at the Capital One branch in the area).

The interesting part of the story here is from Victor Trevino, Precinct 6 Constable, who is quoted as saying:

If you’re writing tickets at this location, and we don’t have any complaints from citizens and you don’t have any accidents out here, then what is your logic?

I don’t think anybody in law enforcement or any public official is actually going to admit that [this is about money instead of public safety], but it’s what it would look like to the common-sense person.

It is indeed rare for me to praise a law enforcement officer. However, I applaud Constable Trevino for his efforts to defend the public image of law enforcement in and around the Houston area. It looks bad on not just HPD but every law enforcement agency in the area when these kind of speeding tickets are written for what must be obvious revenue generation as opposed to safety. Like it or not (and believe me, I don’t), the image of the entire city can be affected by what its police officers do.

So this is what I suggest to my readers: If you get a speeding ticket written by Officer Matt Davis, don’t get mad, get even. Plead “not guilty” and set it for trial. Talk to an attorney. If enough people do this instead of quietly pleading guilty and paying up, Officer Davis and HPD will get the message, because there is no way a million dollars’ worth of traffic tickets will ever make it to trial. And that message is that we as a community condemn the practice of traffic tickets for revenue generation.

Wayne’s story includes a link to a Google map showing the ticket hotspots for surface streets and the number of tickets issued. It’s worth a look, especially if you regularly travel the entire city as part of your job as I once did.

Riding above the law: an observation in downtown Houston

Update 2011-02-06: I know the images on this post are broken. I’m in the process of moving them to Flickr due to hosting costs.

Update 2012-04-20: Images are back up as they were before, temporarily. They will move again, I’m not sure where yet.

Regular readers will notice most of my posts are commentary on third-party articles covered elsewhere. This will be an exception to the rule, as it comes from first-person observation.

(All pictures posted were taken yesterday, 2010 October 6; please keep this in mind. And yes, this post will be quite picture-heavy.)

It started when I observed a vehicle with a prominent “official police business” windshield parking pass. It’s not that which really caught my attention as much as the expired inspection and registration above it (two and four whole months past due, respectively), which made me really glad I brought my camera with me:

I went about my business in a nearby building and came out an hour later, walking towards my destination elsewhere in downtown. One would hope that a vehicle either used for police business or obviously owned by a police officer would have current registration and inspection. While I did observe several such vehicles that were in compliance, it seems there are plenty of scofflaws carrying a badge.

This is one of the less egregious violators. Still, the inspection has lapsed for a whole month:

Oh yeah, and the front license plate is missing. I had to go to the back plate to get a positive ID:

This next one has a current registration, but an inspection that’s been lapsed for a whole year and a half:

Another one with current registration, but an inspection that’s been due for some time, and also missing the front license plate:

Finally, yet another expired inspection:

When average citizens drive around with lapsed registrations, lapsed inspections, and missing front plates, they are at risk of being nailed for a ticket. I don’t think there’s a real consequence for law enforcement officers that do this, as all they usually have to do is flash a badge and say “this ought to take care of it” thus making them above the law. Especially in the case of the second vehicle which very well could be a warrant car actually belonging to HPD instead of a private individual (just an educated guess, given the emergency lights).

Quis custodet ipsos custodes, indeed.

In summary (with license plate numbers in text for search engine robots):

  • Silver Chevrolet, Y74-XXD, expired inspection and registration
  • Black Nissan, MTN-443, expired inspection and registration, and missing front plate
  • Dark blue Pontiac, GKT-328, expired inspection (over a year)
  • Brown Nissan truck, 20x-FT3, expired inspection and missing front plate
  • Maroon Chevy, Y31-XXD, expired inspection

More to come, maybe. If I don’t post any more, it won’t be because I forgot my camera; I’ve decided I’m packing a camera every time I go downtown from now on.