The streets of Los Angeles are becoming more dangerous for city traffic officers.
Appalled by a growing increase in assaults against the 550 civilian employees who write parking tickets and direct traffic, city officials Monday endorsed state legislation to increase penalties for attackers.
Last week in Hollywood, for example, someone took a baseball bat to the windshield of a traffic enforcement officer’s vehicle. Three other cars had their tires slashed. And one officer was pulled from his car and beaten with fists after an alleged assailant did not like the answer to a question he asked.
“This is just an indication of the intense violence our guys experience out there,” said Jimmy Price, the city’s chief of parking enforcement. “These kinds of situations traumatize our employees and make them reluctant to engage in their activities when they are in the field.”
The number of assaults on traffic officers has increased steadily over the last five years, Price told a City Council panel.
Assaults went from 23 two years ago to 35 last year, while assault and battery cases -- involving weapons or physical attacks -- went from nine to 18, including one in which an attacker fired five rounds from a gun into a traffic officer’s vehicle.
Parking tickets written by Los Angeles traffic officers, who wear uniforms but are separate from the Los Angeles Police Department, bring in $113 million annually.
“Traffic officers are a vital part of our ability to keep traffic moving,” said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. “But, unfortunately, some of their duties are not warmly received by recipients of parking violations and result in assault and harassment.”
Greuel cited national reports of incidents that ranged from spitting and verbal threats to physical assaults.
“Most disturbingly, the number of incidents is on the rise. This is unacceptable,” Greuel told the council’s Public Safety Committee.
The panel voted to endorse a bill proposed by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would make it a felony to strike a traffic officer, doubling penalties to more likely result in jail time for those convicted of assault.
On Saturday, two officers who ticketed a car in the downtown area were accosted by a man who protested, pulled out a gun and pointed it at them, Price said.
Julie Butcher, head of Service Employees International Union Local 347, which represents traffic officers, told the council that incidents increased recently when news reports quoted people complaining about parking meter problems.
The city teaches officers a form of “verbal judo,” used to distract angry motorists and defuse incidents before they become violent. Officers are issued pepper spray to be used only if an incident gets out of hand.
Some traffic officers, including Gordon McCullough, who works the night shift in Los Angeles, are becoming worried about going to work.
“Often I come to work wondering, ‘Am I going home safely?’ ” he said. “I have been spat upon, threatened, cursed.”