BANGOR, Maine — Think no one will notice if you park illegally in a handicapped spot, even if it’s only for a few minutes?
The city’s Police Department has teamed up with a local organization that serves people with disabilities to help crack down on handicapped parking violations.
Members of Alpha One, a statewide nonprofit that offers independent living services to clients all over Maine, approached the Bangor Police Department earlier this year with concerns about an increase in patrons parking illegally in handicapped spots.
“It’s really a major problem,” said Wes Smith of Alpha One, who also is a wheelchair user. “We decided to be proactive on this by going to police. What was amazing to us is that police didn’t have an idea as to the seriousness of the problem. As wheelchair users, we see it all the time.”
Since April, Alpha One has worked with Police Chief Ron Gastia and other city staff to create a plan to educate violators about laws that govern handicapped spaces and hold violators more accountable when necessary.
That plan, which was announced this week, allows certain members of Alpha One to report violations to police. To make things easier, designated reporters will be instructed specifically on state laws and city ordinances, as well as what evidence police would need to issue tickets. They may even be instructed on how to take photographs that police could use in issuing tickets.
Police still will have the final say as to whether a warning or ticket will be issued.
“This is basically an educational process,” Smith said. “But if people are ignoring laws and continuing to do this, police are going to catch them.”
Gastia stressed that the reporters will not conduct patrols, but rather will report violations observed during day-to-day activities.
“We think this will help get the message out that this is serious,” the chief said. “It’s inappropriate and it’s unacceptable.”
Gaelen Saucier, who has been in a wheelchair for about five years after suffering a spinal cord injury, said frustration and anger among area residents with disabilities has been mounting about the parking issue.
“It’s been building for quite a while,” said Saucier, who serves on Alpha One’s access education committee, which initially brought the problem to light. “We came to the conclusion that we needed to do something about it. But it’s really a minor portion of a big, big problem.”
According to Smith, handicapped parking violations are less prevalent in downtown Bangor because the city has regular parking patrols, but are a big problem in shopping areas.
“We find that on rainy or snowy days, a lot of handicapped people seem to be out shopping,” Smith said.
Sometimes, motorists will park in an access lane rather than an actual spot, which is just as problematic, Smith said. The access area is used for a wheelchair lift, and when it’s blocked, the open handicapped spot doesn’t do any good.
“We know we’ll never solve it, but we hope we can cut it back,” Smith said, adding that Alpha One also is working with public safety officials in nearby Brewer.
Gastia said police are still identifying which members of Alpha One will be trained to work with police, but he said the plan is expected to be instituted shortly after the new year begins.
Bangor councilors expressed support for the initiative at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I’m pleased with the dialogue,” council Chairman Gerry Palmer said. “I think the city can do more on this matter and I hope this helps educate the public.”