When Is A Cop Not A Cop?

Fashion Police In Tacoma


Editorial By Michael Pellegrini



Say you found a red “warning” notice on the windshield of your car. The notice had the official Tacoma Police Department logo, and was signed “Tacoma Police Department, Officer number so and so.”


A reasonable and prudent citizen could only conclude that the notice had been issued by the police department. Right? Of course that’s the only logical conclusion. But not so in Tacoma.


Arriving home from work one day, I found such a notice tucked under the windshield wiper of my 1975 GMC Jimmy. There was a stripe of bright orange paint on one of the tires. On the windshield, the date was scrawled with the same day-glow paint. I’d seen notices like this on wrecked and junk vehicles before, but my truck, albeit old and rusty, still runs more or less, and in any event, it was properly licensed and legally parked. The notice (which had the TPD logo) stated that if I hadn’t moved the truck within 24 hours, it would be impounded at my expense.


Not more than fifty feet from where my truck was parked, there sat a newer Mazda RX7 – with California plates and tabs that had expired in June, 1997. The Mazda had major body damage, and was parked less than fifteen feet from the corner, which is illegal. The Mazda had not been given a warning notice.


Seeing this, I became pretty annoyed.


Somehow - perhaps in his haste to ticket my rusty old truck - the officer had overlooked the illegally parked Mazda with tabs that had expired almost two years earlier. Seeing this, my only thought was that the fashion police must have finally arrived, and they had decided my truck was too déclassé for Tacoma.


I did some checking. As it turns out, the Tacoma Police Department hasn’t given out the red warning notices for several years. That task, called the “Abandoned Auto Program,” had been taken over by the city Public Works department, office of the Traffic Engineer.


This puzzled me. The notice clearly indicated it was from the Tacoma Police Department, but apparently, it was not.


Because of that, and because I was miffed that the “officer” had ticketed my vehicle while he had overlooked a newer, illegally parked car with expired tabs, I wrote a letter of protest to the city.


A couple weeks passed, then Alan Tebaldi, the city Traffic Engineer, responded. In that response, Mr. Tebaldi stated that my vehicle had been given the warning notice because it appeared it had been parked there for an extended period of time, which is prohibited under municipal code. His said officer was flagged down by one of my neighbors, who apparently complained about the length of time that my truck had been parked. In response to my questions concerning the appearance that the notice was given by the Tacoma Police department, Mr. Tebaldi offered a couple intra-departmental memos from the TPD, where a Captain explained that the Abandoned Auto Program would henceforth be transferred to Public Works. As to the Public Works employees who gave the warning notices - who are actually called “Road-Use Compliance Officers” - Mr. Tebaldi stated that they were given “special commissions,” by the TPD. He stated that the special commissions authorize the officers to enforce the parking codes. By this, Mr. Tebaldi appeared to imply it was appropriate for the “officers” to pass themselves off as actual Tacoma Police officers. As to the illegally parked Mazda, Mr. Tebaldi stated, “[The officer] did not observe any other obviously abandoned vehicle in the area. Had he observed any, he would have tagged them consistent with our policy.”


This troubles me. First, I think it might be wise that Mr. Tebaldi check with the City Attorney, because it isn’t legal for the police department to simply give away their duties by intra-departmental memo. They don’t have the authority to do so. The City Council could easily pass a municipal ordinance that would effect the transfer, but that’s about the only way it could be done legally.


In addition, the “Special Police Commissions” ordinance (Chapter 7.10 of the city municipal code) cited by Mr. Tebaldi clearly does not give them the ability to enforce city codes. Nor does the chapter in any way associate such special police officers with the Tacoma Police Department.


On the contrary, the chapter specifically defines “Special Police Officers” as “merchant patrolmen and security officers.” Thus, a “Special Police Officer” working for the city would be a city employee whose duties were similar to a security officer. Not a police officer, in any way, shape or form.


As such, I sincerely hope Mr. Tebaldi changes the warning notices to disassociate his staff from the TPD - before some bright citizen sues his agency for fraud, or before one of his staff gets arrested for impersonating a cop. And who knows, maybe eventually the City Council will even make the enforcement legal? Stay tuned…