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Disabled vets on duty enforcing parking rules

Volunteers ensure able-bodied don't illegally use spots


TRIBUNE PHOTO: DEAN BAKER - Walter Hull poses in front of a photo of his hero: Civil War Medal of Honor winner Joshua Chamberlain, professor and leader at Gettysburg, victor at Little Round Top.Walter Hull is a disabled Navy veteran and retired Portland high school teacher who is working to save from extinction a little-known group of volunteer public servants.

At age 80, he speaks for an aging group of retired disabled veterans who are making life easier for their disabled comrades and other citizens with disabilities.

This Memorial Day, and every day, the Disabled Parking Enforcement Volunteers (DPEV) are busy. In the past 12 years, they have issued 5,400 tickets and 25,000 warnings to able-bodied drivers who illegally park in slots open only for drivers with mobility issues.

Once there were as many as 17 volunteers to patrol dozens of parking spaces. But now only six aging members are active. The group needs new volunteers to make sure those parking spots are used only by folks with disabilities.

“He and Clyde Harmon are behind the group with other volunteers,” said Traffic Motor Division Sgt. Erin Smith of the Portland Police Bureau. “They are getting older, and they want to bring in the next generation, the next crop to carry on this important work.”

“We want people, even in wheelchairs, to join us in a noble effort to preserve their American Disabilities Act rights,” Hull said. “It’s a civil right.”

He ought to know about rights. After leaving the Navy, Hull taught American government, economics, critical thinking and American foreign policy. He taught at Mitchell and Reedsport in Oregon, then in Redding, Calif., and then in Portland and Grant and Rex Putnam High Schools.

“We don’t have enough cops to patrol every violation of disabled parking,” Smith said. “It’s very important, and they do it with no compensation, just basically for the feeling of doing something good.”

Authorized by state law, the volunteers work on the outskirts of Portland, in Gresham and Multnomah County, patrolling retail parking lots and Gresham streets.

They leave downtown Portland to professional paid traffic enforcers. In recent months, the City of Portland has begun charging for formerly free disabled parking spots. The city was compelled to act to stop widespread abuse by able-bodied drivers using invalid, stolen or altered permits.

“Our job is to educate and to enforce the law,” said Hull, who works a few hours a day, four days a week, despite his own disabilities: fibromyalgia and a recurrent case of post-polio syndrome, a disease he had as a teen but which has recurred, bringing constant pain and weakness.

The ranks of the volunteers have thinned out naturally, said Harmon, also 80, a retired Portland police lieutenant and the unofficial leader of the group.

“But some of them died off; they worked until they dropped,” said Harmon, who suffered an aortic rupture a few months ago and is back on duty. “Others just got so ill they weren’t able to continue.”

Hull and Harmon recently have recruited half a dozen new enforcers, but they need more. “We want to recruit veterans, even wheelchair-bound veterans who do a really good job,” Hull said.

Patrolling is a big and thankless job. It’s not easy and less than popular with the public.

A lot of people fudge their way into those free parking spots, which are close to retail store doors. Many don’t realize they are hurting disabled folks in need. Others simply cheat.

“We’ve tried education. We’ve tried warnings. But often the only thing that works is the citation,” Hull said. Parking in a space reserved for people who use wheelchairs can bring a $190 ticket. Other fines for misusing the reserved parking slots run as high as $450.

Hull said cheaters buy disabled parking stickers at garage sales or on eBay. They use disabled friend’s or relative’s stickers, or park with a regular sticker in the wider lots designated for drivers who use wheelchairs and need more space to lower and raise their hoists.

Recently, to illustrate what he does as a parking enforcer, Hull toured a WinCo parking lot, pointing out many violations.

He said he could easily write four tickets in any lot he visits, but on this day he simply issued some warnings.

In a typical case, Hull approached an elderly man and two women who had a disabled parking sticker in their van, but who had parked illegally in a wheelchair-only spot.

“We’re sorry. We didn’t know,” said the man. “You aren’t giving us a ticket, are you?”

He didn’t give them a ticket.

Well, what if they didn’t know?

“Ignorance isn’t an excuse,” he said, but he uses judgment on who he tickets.

Despite his heart problems, Harmon recently started patrolling again. He served 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and 35 years in the Portland Police Bureau where he retired as a lieutenant.

He and his brother, the late Portland police officer Stan Harmon, are the founders of the DPEV. Stan Harmon lobbied the Oregon Legislature back in 1991 and succeeded in getting legal authorization for the volunteer group, which operated first under the state police and then switched to the Portland Police Bureau, Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and Gresham police.

Stan Harmon, also a Marine Corps veteran, had been forced to retire as a Portland police officer after he suffered a crippling injury when a drunken, stoned sniper shot him while he was on duty in 1977. The .22-caliber rifle bullet severed his spinal cord, robbing him of his ability to walk.

Once he recovered enough to use a wheelchair, Stan Harmon rolled forward as a parking enforcer. He kept at it, working from his chair for several years. He died in 2013.

Clyde Harmon said the patrol job isn’t easy, but after 35 years as a cop he encounters few human situations he hasn’t seen before.

“Most people aren’t too bad, but you get some real jerks, and most people are doing what they know they shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “They’ll feign ignorance of the law, and kind of push it off.”

Sometimes they need to pay a fine to learn a lesson, he said.

A good number of violators are parents of young children who just want to be closer to the door, he said, “But those spots are there for a reason. People really need them.”

The DPEV patrols enforce four parking violations: cars with no permit; cars with a permit that does not belong to the driver; cars with a permit that is invalid, stolen or disfigured; or vehicles parked in a disabled space marked for a wheelchair only when the permit shown is not for a wheelchair user.

Those who enlist in the parking patrol are given uniforms and training. They work on their own time without quotas or assigned lots and with minimal paperwork and only one meeting a month.

“It’s a good thing to do, and it’s necessary,” Hull said. “It’s just not fair to have these parking spaces abused.”


VOLUNTEERS NEEDED

To volunteer, contact Walter Hull, DPEV Information Officer, trainer and teacher.

Phone: 503-656-3603

Email: cwhull1980@gmail.com

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