S.F. Inquiry Regarding Disability Placards May Miss the (Disabled) Elephant In the Room: It's Just Too Damn Easy To Get a Disability Placard

Categories: Government
Who wants some?

Supervisor Eric Mar was on the side of the angels yesterday when he convened a hearing looking into the Municipal Transportation Authority's enforcement of potential disability placard fraud; if Mar can help bring the legal hammer down on able-bodied folks who fraudulently represent themselves as disabled, hog San Francisco's precious parking spaces all day long for free, and cost the city millions in the process, more power to him.

And yet, a discussion framed around MTA enforcement could well miss the underlying -- and uncomfortable -- factor that has fed San Francisco's sea of blue placards: It's just too simple for disingenuous people to "legitimately" obtain disabled parking rights when they don't really need them.

Hey, don't take my word for it. That's the opinion of a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Report from 2007:

State law authorizes many and various health care practitioners - from audiologists all the way through to some categories of social workers -- to certify someone as eligible for a blue placard. This very multiplicity of types of certifiers also makes it easier for anyone to shop around for a practitioner who will quickly sign one's application for a blue placard. Further, since certification does not automatically require an actual full-scale exam by the practitioner, the application can be completed by office staff -- figuratively rubber-stamping the application. There is little incentive for practitioners to say no, but considerable incentive to agree to the certification. Practitioners might worry that their failure to sign the authorization may result in the loss of their patient to another practitioner.
It warrants mentioning, however, that the grand jury also noted that the MTA and other city agencies don't have any power over the issuing of disabled placards -- that's the job of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The city can monitor DMV statistics and lobby state bodies to tighten up these rules, but, for the most part, the issues Mar brought up at yesterday's hearing are means of chasing down the horses after the barn door has already been left open.
To wit: Mar queried MTA on the number of disability placards in the city, the number confiscated in the past year, and the ratio of placards confiscated compared to the number of folks asked to present valid proof that the placard is theirs. Mar's legislative aid, Cassandra Costello, told SF Weekly that MTA would begin providing said data on a quarterly basis, and another hearing could be held by late summer or early fall.

It is unclear if the 2007 Grand Jury Report was consulted during this renewed quest to ferret out those abusing the system. For if it was, some of these issues have already been analyzed.

Citing numbers from the DMV and state department of finance, the Grand Jury reported that there were around 50,000 blue placards in San Francisco -- on par with the totals in other Bay Area cities. As for busting scofflaws, the totals are up, but may not be as high as Mar and others would like -- and the Grand Jury noted why:

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's Department of Parking & Traffic (DPT) has developed a special unit for enforcement. Working in this special unit also requires additional training -- in conflict resolution and in sensitivity to people with disabilities. DPT's policy requires the presence of two Parking Control Officers for the issuance of a citation regarding blue placard laws. One officer interacts with the driver, while the other officer is there as a potential witness, in the event the citation is challenged. This burdensome process results in the issuance of fewer citations for blue placard violations than for any other type of parking offense.
(Placard stings, of the sort mentioned at yesterday's hearing, do net a number of miscreants. The Jury noted, however, that staff shortages limit the amount of stings one can pull off to two a month -- and, still, this doesn't address the core issue of undeserving people getting permits lawfully.).

It seems that the same factor spurring many doctors to simply grant the wish of all who ask for a blue placard is behind the city's cumbersome enforcement policy: When confronting those who claim to be disabled, one opens up the possibility of being blasted with an expensive Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit. What's more, even if Mar gets the data he seeks, "how many times has someone been allowed to slide because a Parking Control Officer or cop was afraid to say, 'show me your documentation'?" asks Bob Planthold, a disability rights advocate and member of the Grand Jury that produced the aforementioned report.

Furthermore, how easy is it to get the required tandem of Parking Control Officers out to inspect a placard? Planthold says it's a major challenge. He personally witnessed a delivery truck driver equipped with a blue disabled placard loading and unloading heavy packages -- brazenly across the street from DPT headquarters. Despite Planthold's multiple calls to the DPT's blue placard hotline, Planthold witnessed this charade going on for years. To his knowledge, the driver was never confronted.

This was disheartening -- but not as disheartening as knowing that there are thousands and thousands of folks driving around San Francisco who "legitimately" obtained their blue placards -- and don't really need them.

"It's too easy to get a placard in general," says Planthold. "Sometimes people just hand it to the doctor's secretary, he doesn't even examine the patient, and -- boom, boom, boom -- he rubber-stamps it and it's gone."

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