Want the Best Deal on Parking? Get Yourself a Police Surgeon Placard

AMTRAK_Placard_small.JPGThis unofficial placard illegally grants its owner free access to a no-parking zone near Union Square every workday. Photo: Noah Kazis
For only $250, the ability to willfully disregard the parking laws of New York City can be yours. With barely a fuss, at least two different police organizations will sell you an illegitimate parking placard, with all its attendant perks. These placards aren't official and carry zero legal protections. Even so, if you display one on your dashboard you get a free pass to park almost wherever you want, when you want.

Because free parking perks granted to police and other public employees directly contribute to traffic congestion on gridlocked streets, the Bloomberg administration moved to clamp down on them in 2008. The city has eliminated tens of thousands of official placards, but the abuse of both official and fraudulent placards persists. While traffic enforcement agents are only supposed to honor a few specific types of placards, all issued directly by New York City, in practice, any dashboard decoration that looks semi-official can intimidate agents into giving the owner a pass

So how do you get your hands on one? Here's the deal. If you're an MD -- or belong to a loosely-defined cadre of medical professionals, including dentists, acupuncturists, and even "chaplains" -- you can send a copy of your medical license, diploma, resume, and a $250 check to Amtrak Police Lodge #189, an affiliate of the Fraternal Order of Police based in Maple Shade, New Jersey. You also agree to treat members of the lodge. They'll designate you an "Amtrak Police Surgeon" and send along a parking placard, like the one shown above, that looks suspiciously like an official document.

But they only look official. While completely illegitimate and invalid on the streets of New York City, these placards grant their owners de facto immunity from the law and provide free access to some of the most valuable curbside real estate on the planet.

One Streetsblog tipster reported seeing an SUV using an Amtrak police surgeon placard pull into the same no-parking zone on 13th Street at Fifth Avenue every weekday, without fail. When I went to investigate this morning, there it was. Law enforcement doesn't seem to mind, even though only government-issued placards are valid in New York City (other municipalities can honor what they choose).

With a space in a nearby garage running around $500 a month, that's the kind of deal that makes it much more attractive to drive to work every day. 
PBA_Surgeon.jpegAnother brand of unofficial police surgeon placard. Photos: Uncivil Servants

Becoming an Amtrak police surgeon isn't the only way for you and your car to skirt the law. If you prefer, you could become a member of the Surgeon Division of the New York State Police Investigator Association, a local of the International Union of Police Associations. The requirements are exactly the same. In fact, the same man administers both programs, Dr. Sheldon Werner of Wappingers Falls, New York. 

So what do these placard providers have to say for themselves? Werner wouldn't return our calls, nor would any member of Lodge #189's leadership. The Police Investigator Association's Jim O'Connor, however, was willing to explain his view of the placards.

"It's just a courtesy placard," said O'Connor, "it doesn't give you any specific rights." According to O'Connor, the placards are simply a way to identify doctors who have committed to serve state police investigators. 

We also tried getting in touch with doctors participating in the Amtrak police surgeon program. Most weren't willing to talk. Chiropractor Loretta Friedman said that she wasn't supposed to publicly discuss the program without first checking in with Werner.  Friedman's office is located right around the corner from the illegally parked SUV with the bogus placard shown up top.

The only doctor willing to discuss his placard was Eric Waldorf, a chiropractor in Bridgewater, New Jersey. "I throw it on my dashboard, it's there all the time," Waldorf admitted. "But it doesn't really do anything for me," he continued, claiming that he only parks in legal spaces. When asked why he displays the placard every day if it doesn't do anything, Waldorf answered, "I guess you can call it a decoration." 

The fact that bogus placards can so easily be used to flout the law points to some of the unfinished business of placard reform. The Bloomberg administration took on powerful public employee unions when it reduced the number of official placards in the city. But placard reduction also has to be accompanied by placard enforcement, which often means going after the vehicles of individuals with power and authority. As long as traffic enforcement agents are intimidated by bogus police surgeon placards, they'll probably back off the real deal too. The mayor's office has not responded to requests for information about the city's strategy for dealing with unofficial placards.