Patrols keep eyes peeled for parking violators

Clark County Sheriff's Office volunteers look for cars parked illegally in disabled spots

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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As Tom Croley drove slowly through the parking lot at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, he and his partner trained their eyes on the dashboards of cars parked in spots marked for disabled visitors.

Croley and Gary Anderson are among 10 volunteers who receive a limited commission from the Clark County Sheriff's Office to write tickets for cars parked illegally in disabled spots.

"People who are truly disabled should have those spots available to them," said Anderson, whose wife is disabled and has a parking placard.

Although Vancouver's 2010 budget cuts eliminated the city's volunteer enforcement program, the sheriff's office program is going strong. Last year, volunteers put in 185.5 hours, issued 441 warnings and 99 citations, said Sgt. Shane Gardner, who oversees community programs for the sheriff's office. Volunteers concentrate their efforts in Hazel Dell, Salmon Creek and other urban areas of unincorporated Clark County.

Croley and Anderson can write tickets only outside city limits and only when they go on patrol, which they do a couple of mornings a month. They begin their shift by stopping at the west precinct office to pick up a ticket book and a white car they mark with magnetic signs.

Croley, 65, who retired after 30 years of running a glass shop, wanted to volunteer as a sheriff's reserve officer. Hearing loss prevented him from qualifying, so he signed up for the parking patrol.

Anderson, 67, a retired border patrol agent, wanted to volunteer in law enforcement

"It's something to do," Anderson said in characteristic matter-of-fact style. "It's interesting — like when we got swung at by a guy with a cane."

That happened at a WinCo Foods in Brush Prairie. They saw a car with an expired disabled parking tag from Tennessee lying on the dash. They began writing a ticket when a man with a cane came back to his car. Anderson and Croley tried to talk with him about how to obtain a tag in Washington, but the man wouldn't hear it. He started swearing and swinging his cane at them. They backed off but submitted the ticket to the sheriff's office. Under other circumstances, they might have just given him a warning.

"That was a sad case," Croley said. "He was clearly disabled. He just wouldn't talk about it."

The volunteers' work "is pretty thankless," Gardner said. "They give their time because most are placard holders themselves. They are looking out for people."

The sheriff's office doesn't set a ticket quota for volunteers, and discourages them from confronting drivers.

"It doesn't make us happy to give a ticket," Croley said.

Within a couple of hours on a recent morning, they had written two tickets and issued five warnings.

They started to write a ticket outside a medical office when a 72-year-old man came out and explained that he was driving his wife, who has disabled parking privileges. They reminded him to display the tag.

"Technically, we could give him a ticket, but we're not out to get people," Croley said. "We want to catch the ones who are real violators."

"Most of the time, we give people the benefit of the doubt," Anderson added. "We're not really bad guys."

Anderson and Croley have had plenty of time to get to know each other in the past couple of years as they've gone on patrols together. They chat, sometimes about their shared faith.

Croley also has served as a part-time minister through the years. Anderson asks him questions about the Bible.

"We just talk about the Lord now and then," he said.

The topic has taken on greater weight since Anderson was given eight months to live two years ago. He had surgery to remove cancer from his brain and lung.

"It was coming back a little, then all of a sudden, it disappeared," he said.

"Tom, he gives me strength," Anderson said. "He's a great partner -- except for making me get out of the car when it's raining."

If they don't see the iconic wheelchair logo on a license plate or a tag hanging from the rearview mirror, Anderson is the one who climbs out to walk up to the car in question to look through the windshield for a placard. He grumbles, and Croley reminds him it's good for his health.

They enjoy their volunteer gig because they feel like it makes a difference.

"I think the program has been successful," Croley said. "A few years ago, we'd go out and give three to four tickets. Now, we can go several patrols and not write even one ticket."