LaVerne Grimes knows what the motorized cart situation is like at Wal-Mart — The pickings are slim.
So on a day in early February when the 79-year-old Grimes and her friend were preparing to park in a handicapped spot, they hurried when they noticed a man on one of those treasured mobile carts nearing his spot and ready to dismount.
Grimes, who will have her left knee replaced next month and just had cataract surgery on her left eye this week, has had a handicapped placard for the past 10 years. Fortunately for Grimes, her friend parked his car and hustled over to get the cart for Grimes. The two went on in to Wal-Mart and proceeded with their shopping.
But in the midst of running down the cart, both Grimes and her friend forgot to put her placard on the rearview mirror. While they shopped, Pat Buehrle, the parking control specialist for the city of Beaumont, was rolling through the Wal-Mart parking lot that day looking for people illegally parked in handicapped spots.
She came across Grimes’ friend’s car. She didn’t see a placard. There was no handicapped symbol on the license plate. Buehrle, 64, scribbled down the license plate number and wrote the driver of the car a citation for illegally parking in a handicapped spot. A month later, Grimes gets the citation – a $500 fine.
What upset Grimes most is when she found out that she had to go to court to prove she had a placard.
“I didn’t understand it,” said Grimes, who despite her physical limitations is quick-witted and fiery. “Why wouldn’t they leave a reminder on the window? And how come they didn’t see the placard on the dash?”
Buehrle said she didn’t see a placard that day, and didn’t notice one on the dash either from where she was in her van. Buehrle, who is also handicapped, said she was sorry for the mishap and knows from personal experience over the last 50 years how important enforcement is of handicapped parking spot violators.
“I try to take a picture of the windshield when I don’t see the placard,” Buehrle said, and most of the times, she gets out of her van and rides around in a motorized chair throughout the parking lot to ticket offenders. And then sometimes there are situations like the one with Grimes where the placard isn’t seen.
That’s why Buehrle, who was injured at age 15 in a car accident that broke her back, damaging her spine and leaving her unable to walk, has a handicapped license plate in addition to having a placard. “I know I’ll forget to hang it up sometimes,” she said.
Buehrle added that while not having a placard is one way to get ticketed, parking in the striped area next to the handicapped spot is also a violation.
“I probably write more citations for people parked in the striped area,” Buehrle said, adding that even folks with a handicapped placard can be cited for parking in the striped area.
Both women, who have never met, are passionate about not letting anything slow them down, regardless of a physical ailment. And they both share a general disdain for those who are perfectly able-bodied and still park in handicapped spots.
“I see people parking in a handicapped spot, and then they get out their car and they’re jumping and skipping along,” Grimes said.
Beaumont Police Officer Doug Kibodeaux, a 30-year veteran of the department, is the director of Citizens in Action, a volunteer group of civilians that receives special training to be able to write handicapped parking violations.
“They’ve helped tremendously,” said Kibodeaux, who said the 40 or so who are part of Citzens in Action, affectionately called CIA for short, have been instrumental in helping to deter handicapped parking violators.
Formed in 2007, the group was borne from the Citizens Police Academy, where civilians are schooled on the art of law enforcement. From there, volunteers from the CPA go through an interview process, background check and extensive testing and training before they are qualified to be a part of the CIA and are permitted to write citations.
Kibodeaux said the need to employ civilians to help write citations arose thanks to the rampant violations and the time officers were using to write the violations, in addition to other factors.
“There were a number of things, but we were getting a lot of calls about it, and it helps free up the officers from having to do it. There is a stipulation in the law that says a volunteer agent working for the city, if he or she has been trained, can legally write citations in the state of Texas, and it’s one of the very few, the only one that I know of, that can actually authorize volunteers to act as an agent of the police department.”
As a result, in the last five years, the number the volunteers in the CIA has risen as well as the number of citations that have been written.
“In 2010, we were three citations shy of $100,000 in fines,” Kibodeaux said, “and I haven’t compiled the final numbers for 2011 yet, but the fine amounts are well over $100,000.”
While the city won’t see all of that money, it’s an encouraging sign and shows that both the Beaumont Police Department and the city of Beaumont are committed to keeping people from parking in spots they have no business parking in.
And volunteers like Jean Barader, 57, and David Fournerot Jr, 55, said they enjoy doing their part for the city and appreciate helping the police. Both said they respect the job police do, and helping with both the Citizens Police Academy and the CIA has given them a better understanding of what goes into a policeman’s job.
“They’re putting their lives on the line every day,” said Barader.
Kibodeaux said all the folks who volunteer, including the folks with the Citizens Police Academy Alumni, are beneficial in helping the police keep Beaumont safe.
And in the meantime, the volunteers with the CIA and Buehrle, who “sees the fight from both sides,” will continue to do all they can to keep the handicapped spots – especially in places like H.E.B. and the hospitals – from parking where they’re not supposed to.
“Those are some of the worst places for people parking illegally,” Kibodeaux said of grocery stores and hospitals. How do they curb that? “We just keep sending people out there and writing tickets.”
As for Grimes, she’s getting her situation cleared up with the city and Deanna Davis, who works at the municipal court, said she understands Grimes being upset about the misunderstanding, and they’re going to resolve her ticket situation so she doesn’t have to come in to court. Davis said it’s something the city has done before, working with people who shouldn’t have been ticketed in situations like Grimes’, but that system was abused by people bringing in the placards of family members and ultimately they had to go back to having people show up. But there are situations where they try to work with people like in Grimes’ case.
“We try to help people the best we can,” Davis said.
Ultimately, both Grimes and Buehrle are happy to bring awareness to a situation that affects far too many people.
“I don’t normally speak up and complain about things unless I need to,” said Grimes, “I’ve seen a lot in 80 years, so if I can help the handicapped by bringing some attention to it, I will.”