Buffalo police say they are enforcing a new "zero tolerance" policy on parking violations that has quadrupled the number of tickets normally issued.
But the police don't seem to be enforcing their new policy on cars right under their noses -- around police headquarters in downtown Buffalo.
Every day, scores of vehicles park in the "No Standing" and "No Parking" zones in front and around the headquarters building -- and don't get ticketed.
Just seven tickets have been issued on cars parked on Church Street so far this year.
More than 11,000 parking tickets have been issued this year in other locations around the city.
Last year, between Jan. 1 and Feb. 10, there were 2,472 tickets issued citywide.
Unnamed Buffalo police sources, confirmed by city officials and control board members, have told The News that the ticketing blitz was prompted by police frustrations over their wages which, like those of other city workers, have been frozen despite a contract agreement made in 2003.
Publicly, union officials say the ticketing blitz is just a stricter policy -- one that city officials have embraced because of the potential cash windfall from the ticket fines.
H. McCarthy Gipson, Buffalo's new police commissioner, told reporters earlier this month that parking scofflaws are getting what they deserve.
"If someone is parking illegally, they should expect they're going to get a parking ticket," Gipson said. He could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon or Saturday.
Yet a Buffalo News investigation found that cars illegally parked around police headquarters were routinely left alone.
Department of Motor Vehicles' records showed that, while many of the cars were registered to civilians, dozens of others were in the names of government workers, including police officers, civilian police employees, sheriff's deputies and county employees. A few vehicles were owned by the city or the county.
Dozens of private cars also bore stickers of the Police Benevolent Association emblem or badges of Erie County Sheriff's deputies, state troopers or other law enforcement.
Not only were the cars around police headquarters parked in zones marked by "No Standing" signs, some vehicles blocked fire hydrants, crosswalks and bus stops. Several were even double-parked.
Kristina L. Mack, 55, is one Buffalo motorist who is fed up with the apparent double standard. She got a $35 ticket earlier this month when she and her husband parked on Walden Avenue. She said the "No Parking" sign was so far down the street that she never saw it.
A few days later, she was driving downtown along Church Street when she saw a law enforcement officer getting into his car, which was parked right under a "No Standing" sign. She said she rolled down her window and asked why he didn't get a ticket.
" 'Luck of the draw, lady,' " Mack said the officer told her.
"Everyone else who goes to work downtown has to pay for a [parking] lot or if we go see our attorney or whatever, we have to run down to keep feeding quarters into the meter," she said.
She also pointed out that cars bearing PBA and other law enforcement related stickers get a free pass.
"It's more political abuse," she said.
Art Nickerson, 59, an Air Force retiree from Williamsville, got a parking ticket Feb. 2 after parking beneath an overpass near the HSBC Arena while he was at a hockey game. He had parked there many times before without any problem.
The next game, he paid to park in a lot but noted when he drove home past the police station that night, the typical hockey traffic jam was compounded by another factor.
"Police cars [were] double-parked in front of the station, causing further turmoil and frustration to the hundreds of cars attempting to leave the arena area," he said.
He added: "Fining people who are supporting not only the Sabres but downtown Buffalo is ridiculous. It's stuff like this that, when combined with city politics, pushes people out of state."
For three days in a row last week, News reporters and photographers set out to the streets around police headquarters to catalog cars parked in no-parking and no-standing zones -- to determine who owned the vehicles and whether they were being ticketed.
Over the three days, News staffers observed just two cars in the vicinity of police headquarters, at the corner of Church and Franklin, get tickets. One car on Cathedral Parkway got a ticket Wednesday. And on Friday, a car with a "Fraternal Order of Police" badge on the dashboard was ticketed on Erie Street at Upper Terrace, just as a parking enforcement agent saw a News photographer taking pictures in the vicinity.
Franklin Street, across from the main entrance to police headquarters, has zones designated for patrol cars coming to central booking and for other official police vehicles -- and those rules appeared to be fairly well-enforced, except for some double-parking.
But Church Street, along the side of the headquarters building, and the block just on the other side of the street was a glaring example of the police's "not-so-zero tolerance" policy.
Both sides of the block between Franklin Street and Delaware Avenue are designated "No Standing Any Time" zones, with clearly posted signs.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week, News staffers found 27 to 29 cars parked illegally in those zones during normal business hours.
The cars -- all of which would be visible from the police commissioner's office window -- were never ticketed while News staffers were observing.
On Wednesday, a parking lot attendant on Church Street eagerly pointed out to a reporter a row of cars parked on Upper Terrace, a dead end street that runs alongside the on ramp to Route 5.
"Come see," said the attendant, who did not want to give his name.
A large portion of Upper Terrace was designated "No Parking Except Official Police Vehicles," and the rest was "No Parking Any Time."
Three of the cars in the official zone appeared to be unmarked sheriff's cars, but the remaining 20 vehicles were registered in individual's names.
"These are officers," the attendant yelled. "They're supposed to follow the law."
>No parking for police
The parking situation around headquarters has been a perennial problem. Police officers working out of headquarters don't have access to free parking. There are a limited number of spots in the police headquarter's indoor parking lot, but it is mostly reserved for the commissioner and other administrators.
Union officials have tried in vain to negotiate for parking for its members.
"It falls on deaf ears," said Buffalo PBA President Robert Meegan.
Police officers get parking tickets, too, said Meegan, who added he pays to park in a downtown lot. He pointed out that a $30 ticket is a hardship to a rookie cop making just $30,000 a year.
Meegan explained that many regular-looking cars on Franklin Street, which has areas for official police cars, are actually undercover vehicles. But he denied that officers parked on Church Street, which is a no-standing zone.
"I do know there are some judges that park on Church Street," he added.
As for the lack of ticketing on Church, Meegan said, he "didn't know why they wouldn't be ticketed, but that's not my call."
He dismissed civilians' complaints about unfair ticketing practices.
"Those are the same people that get mad at the police for going through a red light on their way to a murder or rape," he said.
And when informed of The News' investigation Friday afternoon, Meegan said, "I guess we'll have to check the Buffalo News," which is located downtown as well.
Police officials have at times tried to crack down on the parking problems around their headquarters. However, the illegal parking inevitably returns.
But now, with the ticketing blitz in full effect everywhere else in the city, the police end up looking "absolutely hypocritical," said one former police official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"It's live-and-let-live in the city. They'll just chase more people to the suburbs."