Traffic officers Manuel Ramirez (left) and Daniel Price display roughly 150 disabled parking placards that were allegedly being used illegally in Santa Monica. (Kevin Herrera

PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — Parking is the source of many complaints about Santa Monica, but at least one population that should have no trouble is getting squeezed out by impostors.

The fraudulent use of disabled placards is on the rise, police say, with many of those using the highly-recognizable blue and white passes parked in high-demand locations around Santa Monica College, auto dealerships and even local hospitals.

The placards give the owner the right to park in spots designated for the disabled, but also allows for free parking at meters and in residential zones with restricted parking.

It makes them a highly valuable commodity for those that don’t want to cough up the cash to meet Santa Monica’s newly-raised metered parking prices or contend with the new smartmeters, which know when people attempt to overstay their welcome in on-street spots.

It also creates a problem for the disabled, said Chris Arroyo, chair of Santa Monica’s Disabilities Commission.

“It can be the difference between making an appointment to running an errand or not,” Arroyo said. “That can be anywhere from mildly inconvenient to a health issue. I think that it can be a bigger deal than people may realize.”

It’s certainly widespread.

Over 150 placards have been collected in enforcement operations and stings since November 2012. Each look authentic, but have slight variations that betray them — a date sticker that’s out of place, or a placard made from the wrong material.

Others are the real deal, but when officers ask for registration and run the names, it turns out to belong to a friend or older family member who’s mysteriously absent from the vehicle.

Those caught can face a misdemeanor or a fine of up to $4,200.

Traffic Service Officers Chris Cope and George Baker know the stories all too well.

“People who deserve the right should be able to park,” Baker said.

Although every officer in the Santa Monica Police Department can go after placard abusers, Cope and Baker have made it something of a mission to contribute to the box of disabled placards awaiting destruction at the Public Safety Facility.

They both have personal reasons for their focus.

Baker’s father died in 2012 after a battle with cancer. He needed a disabled parking placard, and Baker saw first hand how important the availability of close parking was to a sick person.

Cope once had to help a cancer patient in Santa Monica who could not find a space. The streets were filled with cars displaying disabled placards, some of which she could identify as frauds.

“I promised her that I would always check and make sure,” Cope said.

Officers can only ensure the placard is real, that it belongs to the person using it and that it has not expired. They cannot ask if a person is actually disabled, nor can they pop someone for getting a placard issued inappropriately.

People who have lost a lower extremity or both hands, have a diagnosed disease that interferes with their mobility or can’t move without a device to help them can qualify for the pass.

Some visual problems, including lower-vision or partial sightedness, can also qualify a person for a placard.

Most of these conditions must be confirmed by a medical professional.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issued 2,615,122 disabled placards across the state as of January 2013, any of which can be used to park free and for as long as they wish.

Some look at that number and see a missed opportunity.

In an October 2012 opinion piece printed in the Los Angeles Times, Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning and noted parking guru, suggested that California take a look at practices adopted in other states that create two tiers of disabilities, some of which would have to pay for parking and others which would not.

It would cut down on what he believes is rampant abuse, measured in a 2010 study by UCLA students that showed cars parked for over five hours at a time on one block in the city.

“If the reform reduces placard abuse at meters, more spaces will open up for paying customers,” Shoup wrote, noting that it may or may not increase revenue, but it could cut down on impostor parkers by removing the incentive to cheat.

While policy makers ponder the future of disabled parking fees, the Santa Monica Police Department has a simple message to help with their efforts to enforce existing laws — if you see something, say something.

Anyone may call the department’s Traffic Enforcement Section at (310) 458-8950 to report abuse or call dispatch at (310) 458-8491.

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