Want the Best Deal on Parking? Get Yourself a Police Surgeon Placard

AMTRAK_Placard_small.JPGThis unofficial placard illegally grants its owner free access to a no-parking zone near Union Square every workday. Photo: Noah Kazis

For only $250, the ability to willfully disregard the parking laws of New York City can be yours. With barely a fuss, at least two different police organizations will sell you an illegitimate parking placard, with all its attendant perks. These placards aren’t official and carry zero legal protections. Even so, if you display one on your dashboard you get a free pass to park almost wherever you want, when you want.

Because free parking perks granted to police and other public employees directly contribute to traffic congestion on gridlocked streets, the Bloomberg administration moved to clamp down on them in 2008. The city has eliminated tens of thousands of official placards, but the abuse of both official and fraudulent placards persists. While traffic enforcement agents are only supposed to honor a few specific types of placards, all issued directly by New York City, in practice, any dashboard decoration that looks semi-official can intimidate agents into giving the owner a pass

So how do you get your hands on one? Here’s the deal. If you’re an MD — or belong to a loosely-defined cadre of medical professionals, including dentists, acupuncturists, and even "chaplains" — you can send a copy of your medical license, diploma, resume, and a $250 check to Amtrak Police Lodge #189, an affiliate of the Fraternal Order of Police based in Maple Shade, New Jersey. You also agree to treat members of the lodge. They’ll designate you an "Amtrak Police Surgeon" and send along a parking placard, like the one shown above, that looks suspiciously like an official document.

But they only look official. While completely illegitimate and invalid on the streets of New York City, these placards grant their owners de facto immunity from the law and provide free access to some of the most valuable curbside real estate on the planet.

One Streetsblog tipster reported seeing an SUV using an Amtrak police surgeon placard pull into the same no-parking zone on 13th Street at Fifth Avenue every weekday, without fail. When I went to investigate this morning, there it was. Law enforcement doesn’t seem to mind, even though only government-issued placards are valid in New York City (other municipalities can honor what they choose).

With a space in a nearby garage running around $500 a month, that’s the kind of deal that makes it much more attractive to drive to work every day. 
PBA_Surgeon.jpegAnother brand of unofficial police surgeon placard. Photos: Uncivil Servants

Becoming an Amtrak police surgeon isn’t the only way for you and your car to skirt the law. If you prefer, you could become a member of the Surgeon Division of the New York State Police Investigator Association, a local of the International Union of Police Associations. The requirements are exactly the same. In fact, the same man administers both programs, Dr. Sheldon Werner of Wappingers Falls, New York. 

So what do these placard providers have to say for themselves? Werner wouldn’t return our calls, nor would any member of Lodge #189’s leadership. The Police Investigator Association’s Jim O’Connor, however, was willing to explain his view of the placards.

"It’s just a courtesy placard," said O’Connor, "it doesn’t give you any specific rights." According to O’Connor, the placards are simply a way to identify doctors who have committed to serve state police investigators. 

We also tried getting in touch with doctors participating in the Amtrak police surgeon program. Most weren’t willing to talk. Chiropractor Loretta Friedman said that she wasn’t supposed to publicly discuss the program without first checking in with Werner.  Friedman’s office is located right around the corner from the illegally parked SUV with the bogus placard shown up top.

The only doctor willing to discuss his placard was Eric Waldorf, a chiropractor in Bridgewater, New Jersey. "I throw it on my dashboard, it’s there all the time," Waldorf admitted. "But it doesn’t really do anything for me," he continued, claiming that he only parks in legal spaces. When asked why he displays the placard every day if it doesn’t do anything, Waldorf answered, "I guess you can call it a decoration." 

The fact that bogus placards can so easily be used to flout the law points to some of the unfinished business of placard reform. The Bloomberg administration took on powerful public employee unions when it reduced the number of official placards in the city. But placard
reduction also has to be accompanied by placard enforcement, which often means going after the vehicles of individuals with power and authority. As long as traffic enforcement agents are intimidated by bogus police surgeon placards, they’ll probably back off the real deal too. The mayor’s office has not responded to requests for information about the city’s strategy for dealing with unofficial placards. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    I guess it is egalitarian that members of the private sector are also privatizing public space, as well as employees of the public sector.

    Of course the health care industry is substantially government-funded.

  • Andy

    I know it’s not your typical audience, but why would you outline the exact steps to get a placard on this blog? It’s one thing to discuss the issue, another to tell people exactly how to get a placard as if you want them to have it.

  • Nice piece of investigative journalism.

    People have to be afraid of leaving an invalid placard on their illegally parked cars the same way that people are afraid of being arrested for jumping a turnstile on the subway.

    It’s a double standard that you can be handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted and arraigned in court on misdemeanor charges for not paying $2, versus illegally parking a car gets you a chance at getting a small fine that can be paid by mail in the unlikely event that you are caught. An illegal placard should be ground for an arrest at a minimum and possibly search of the vehicle for illegal goods.

  • Placards need to end, period. Hopefully there is a city councilmember (or several) who will take leadership on this issue and tackle this problem at its root. the only drivers who should be allowed to break parking laws are those officials who are responding to an emergency. otherwise, as this case illustrates, there are too many loopholes and ambiguous permissions.

  • Andy – The information is quite public and easy to find. Once we name the “Amtrak police surgeon” program as one source of bogus placards, it’s all just a Google search away.

    More importantly, I think we’d be doing our readers a disservice if we didn’t explain how easy it is to acquire one of these things.

  • I guess I understand surgeons needing to get around quickly, and often not having the extra time to worry about public transit headways. Maybe some day they will invent a vehicle for personal travel which is subject to neither the traffic problems of an automobile, nor the route and headway restrictions imposed by public transit. Some sort of super vehicle–one that is operable by almost any reasonably healthy person, has negligible maintenance and operation costs, and is cheap to buy in the beginning, too. Ooh! And it should be fun to operate! And since we’re in fantasy world, let’s say that this mythical vehicle, despite having the ability to efficiently carry you through the reaches of the five boroughs, can just be carried up the stairs/elevator into the hospital! And my magic vehicle should probably be good for the environment, too, because people think that’s cool these days.

    Ah, who am I kidding? If such a vehicle existed, why would we even be wasting our time discussing transportation policy on some blog? Oh well. Until they event such a vehicle, I suppose we’ll have to keep issuing parking placards…

  • Wasn’t parking enforcement once done by DOT instead of NYPD TEAs? If so, when and why did that change?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Far from ending, I would expect to see the “placarization” of public services across the board as they decline, with restricted and politically-allocated access to the remaining public services that work.

    There is plenty of precedent. Consider the NYC schools, in the long period where there were only a few good ones. What is an false address to get into one of the few viable schools but the equivalent of an illegal placard?

    Privatization and placardization. The allocation of what ought to be public resources equally provided to all to those with the most money, and to those with the most influence or ability to work the system.

    “You also agree to treat members of the lodge.”

    There it is — the exchange of an illegal parking placard for a health care placard equivalent. A fair exchange, except that one party is selling something that presumably belongs to all.

  • I hear you, Larry. I would do anything to get a placard that allows me to use the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, for example. I heard you can purchase them from a private corporation in Detroit called General Motors, but they run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

  • JK

    Agreed with Paul S White that all government and press placards have to be eliminated. It is long past obvious that the NYPD lacks the will to police itself. Placards are an open sore of petty corruption and entitlement. They Gov vehicles with official plates can continue to have the privileges they already enjoy. If a situation arises which requires emergency parking a city official’s private vehicle, that official can argue their ticket. Rudy Giuliani called for “One city, one standard” but he didn’t mean the police. He should have. When it comes to parking, New York City needs one public standard and no placards.

  • Noah: where exactly does this car park? East or west of Fifth Ave.? North side of the street or south side?

    Gonna try to get some follow up.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I would do anything to get a placard that allows me to use the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, for example. I heard you can purchase them from a private corporation in Detroit called General Motors, but they run in the tens of thousands of dollars.”

    You also need a Staten Island residence placard, to pay a lower toll.

  • Throcky

    I agree with Larry Littlefield – eliminating the placards without demanding that there be more enforcement only leads to different kinds of abuse: in my part of Brooklyn sanitation workers leave their winter coats with insignias prominently displayed in the windshields of their private vehicles while parking on the sidewalks all day.

  • Avid Reader

    What is needed is enforcement of the existing laws. Agents should be trained as to which placards are official and which aren’t. Then should then ticket those that aren’t. If they’re not sure, just ticket it, as someone who is legitimate will have no problem having the ticket voided.

  • lic lovr

    I say anybody reading this that is concerned as me goes ahead and calls Loretta’s office to tell her you would not care to patronize her business if she abuses her position like this….

    any similar infringers revealed through this forum by investigation from concerned citizens can be treated the same way.

    let’s be true advocates of this cause and use our discretion in only supporting doctors or other business that don’t abuse parking placards.

  • Cameron

    lic lovr – Let us treat Loretta as only a suspect in this crime. It is unfair for us to use unsubstantial evidence, that her office is “right around the corner” from the illegally parked car, to warrant our vocalized complaints. To be clear, this topic frustrates me as well, however we should remain rationale.

    There most likely is a connection between Dr. Friedman and the placard carrying SUV, but that is now enough for us to start congregating an angry mob.

  • I always ride Amtrak whenever I need surgery.

  • lic lovr

    cameron –

    i totally see what you’re saying. but to speak more generally i think we should attack the supply side simply because attacking the true problem seems so futile. if we could simply make sure there is enforcement of the actual laws already in place there would be no problem to begin with. how can we make sure each and every parking enforcement agent is going to be diligent enough to ticket every invalid placard?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well I won’t be patronizing the Custard King truck that parked in the Prospect Park West bikeway and obstructed my first shot at a full ride down it. It didn’t even have a placard.

  • lic lovr

    larry – what a bummer. i’ve been meaning to get over there and try it out

  • fdr

    In answer to ddartley, traffic agents used to work for DOT, they were transferred to NYPD in the mid 90s as part of an agency reorganization by Giuliani.

  • Andrew

    Avid Reader:
    I’d go even further. Ignore placards and ticket everything. If the car has a valid placard for its location, let the ticketing system detect that and automatically dismiss the ticket. If the placard is invalid, or it’s not valid at that location, the ticket stands.

  • tb

    Ian D, the car has parked for years immediately west of 5th Ave — the uptown side seems to be preferred, downtown acceptable. Cameron, I’ve seen the car’s owner come and go for years — it’s not circumstantial. The car’s plate is “SYNERGY6” (same for the prior car), and the URL for her practice is http://www.synergyhealthnetwork.com/ ( > “synergy health” > “About Dr. Friedman”).

  • nobody

    Interestingly, Dr. Friedman has $130 in outstanding parking tickets from May. They’re for parking in a No Parking zone, close to that location.

  • tb

    She was using some kind of local-police placard until several months ago, then switched to an “Amtrak Police” placard. That switch may have coincided with my complaint to NYPD’s Internal Affairs, but I have no way of knowing. What I _do_ know is that she is, shall we say, persistent.

    The really interesting character in this is Sheldon Werner of Wappingers Falls, NY, who apparently runs a nice side business in selling law-enforcement ‘credentials.’

  • New idea – why don’t transportation activists get jobs as parking and traffic agents – and do the deed ourselves? I’m sure many of us would have quite a bit of fun cracking down on all of the illegal automobiling around here.

  • nobody

    @tb: Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General:
    http://www.amtrakoig.com

  • Ian Turner

    Judd: Two reasons.
    1. It’s not sustainable. Anytime you do the government’s job for it, it becomes very hard to pass back the baton.
    2. You’d get fired and/or beat up the first time you ticketed an actual police or court officer.

  • lic lovr

    andrew – love your idea. this takes the fear out of the parking enforcement who avoid ticketing anyone with placards (even seemingly fake ones)

  • The reason placards work is because there is a class of automobilists who have successfully persuaded the authorities that they deserve the privilege of parking anywhere they like. This class includes police officers, ambulances, active-duty military, federal law enforcement, and doctors. Placard reform can limit the abuses of this privilege (by other municipal workers and elected officials, say), but just getting rid of placards won’t make authorities any less reluctant to ticket cops or doctors.

  • onecynic

    I understand that there is abuse of the system. But I seem to remember a lot of doctors helping out the police and emergency responders during 9/11. Maybe they need to be there for police emergency’s.

  • Rick

    You guys are just jealous b/c u don’t have placards. Stop the hating and get on with your lives. Life is too short to dwindle on things you can do nothing about…

  • Ian Turner

    Rick, I don’t even have a car. No jealousy here. Stop projecting. Thanks.

  • GRR

    The placard issue is clearly one that needs continual work. The basic framework of the problem is really quite simple, but the psychology of both “sides” is actually complex and fascinating to me. Specifically, how we as advocates think and talk about it. It’s very easy to be outraged and talk of fair and unfair, etc. but these messages (though true) don’t always break through. I do think something Larry noted was headed in a more interesting direction though, namely that we’ll see increased “placardization of services.” Basically, if we start talking about this as a “service” that people are “bribing their way into” than we can begin to outline that this isn’t about American entitlement but third-world dysfunction. Just a thought.

    And a more basic thought: were RFID tags ever on the table for use in the legitimate placards? We could probably just use the already existing easypass system, right? Wouldn’t that be a bulletproof way of doing it?

  • Downtowner

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb2/downloads/pdf/monthly_cb2_resolutions/november_2010/11_november_2010_traffic.pdf

    One of the solutions at the link above – track everyone with a placard with barcodes. The other solution – Use Zip car technology to track all government employees using placards – imbed the placards with tracking devices similar to those used for Zip cars. The technology exists NOW.

  • Antoni Sánchez

    Usted no es un periodista, es un envidioso. Envidioso que además debe usar un cartel de PRENSA en su coche !!!

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