Park without a handicapped permit, risk $450 hit
Stan Harmon knows that life isn't fair.
As a volunteer enforcer of disabled-parking laws, he sees it up close almost every day.
The crying young, overweight woman with the back brace who borrowed her fiancé's disabled-parking permit instead of getting her own - she got a $450 ticket.
The tall, balding belligerent man using his mother's permit who threatened to run over Harmon's assistant and swore at her while ending nearly every sentence with the word 'bitch' - Harmon let him go.
Both broke the law by using permits that did not belong to them. Both were trying to leave the Wal-Mart at the Eastport Plaza shopping center at the same time Tuesday afternoon.
'It's not worth it,' Harmon told the assistant, Ralee Strong, who wanted to go after the man. 'Just let him be.'
Harmon was a Marine. And a cop. He believes in the rule of law, especially as it protects and benefits people who have trouble fighting for themselves.
The importance of the job for him probably has something to do with having to perform it from his wheelchair.
Since 1992, when the Oregon Legislature delegated the authority to enforce disabled-parking laws to volunteers working for, first, the Oregon State Police and later to local law-enforcement agencies, Harmon has been back in law enforcement after a decade away.
The 75-year-old goes parking lot to parking lot, street to street, learning the hot spots for disabled-parking scofflaws in Portland, Gresham and elsewhere in Multnomah County.
Perhaps his busiest place now is the Wal-Mart in Wood Village. He said he wrote 30 tickets there in four days, even coming up with one permit that had been photocopied.
'You have to know the area well enough that you know how to best spend your time,' he said.
Some people who unwittingly break the law and probably don't deserve tickets get them. Others, by ingenuity or sheer force of anger, don't.
Like with someone weaseling or barking their way out of a ticket, things don't always work out the way Harmon expected. He has been in a wheelchair since 1977, when a drunken, stoned sniper shot him as he got out of his Portland police patrol car.
The .22-caliber rifle bullet, fired from a Southeast Belmont Street apartment, ricocheted off a rib and severed his spinal cord at the sixth vertebra, about 6 inches above his waist.
He never really saw the sniper, never pulled his gun off his hip.
Complications related to the injury forced Harmon to retire from the Portland Police Bureau in 1981, after 17 years on the force.
'I got a bad break,' Harmon said. 'No grudges. It's nobody's fault.'
And when the Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America started lobbying for a change in disabled-parking laws in 1991, Harmon, a member, was the first to volunteer to actually enforce the resulting law.
'The law isn't different for people whether they're in a wheelchair or not, whether they have some disease or not,' he said. 'It's for everybody. My purpose here, as it has been a long, long time, is to make sure that the law is applied consistently and fairly and people don't get away with something at another person's expense.'
'He's always so professional'
Harmon and Strong go out every day Harmon feels physically up to it. She works as his paid caretaker, always going out with him, and attending to him at home when he can't go out. When they find someone violating the law, she is more outraged than he is.
'Oh, he's always so professional,' Strong said. 'I just lose it because I see how this negatively impacts some really good people.'
Harmon enforces five different laws relating to disabled parking, and can easily rattle off the range of fines and the Oregon Revised Statute numbers associated with each one - something most of the 13 other Portland-area volunteers can't do.
It takes eight to 40 hours to train a volunteer, depending on his or her temperament and experience, Harmon said. Though he also is a volunteer, he acts as supervisor and lead trainer. He has fired one for following offenders to their homes and another for being unprofessional by cross-dressing intermittently.
'It was an inconsistent face for the public,' Harmon said. 'Can't have that.'
He said he always can use more volunteers.
Strong, 44, tends to wear pink rhinestoned baseball caps, while Harmon favors one with a fabric Portland police supervisor badge on it. Both also wear vests or Windbreakers that more easily identify them. The block letters on the back of Harmon's are simple and clear: Portland Police, Disabled Parking Enforcement.
Though authorized by law to be on public property and private property open to the public - a Wal-Mart parking lot, for example - none of the volunteers, Harmon included, have the authority to detain people. If they leave, they leave - no ticket. But sometimes a volunteer will stand behind a car, taking a picture of the license plate for evidence, making it more difficult to get away.
To add to the minor display of authority, however, Harmon also wears all his identification badges around his neck just in case someone asks.
He flipped through them, reading them out loud for show: 'Volunteer, Gresham police. Volunteer, Portland police. Volunteer, Multnomah County. And here's my retirement card for Portland police.'
Each place he goes, he rolls along, faded-green Gatorade sports bottle and cell phone on him at all times, checking disabled-parking permits visually and by calling some in.
Court dates are once a month on a Tuesday afternoon, and either Harmon or another volunteer always makes sure to show up to testify.
It's a long rise from low point
Harmon met Strong about two years ago, when she worked in the Gresham Fred Meyer at Cinnabon and he was one of her regular customers. She got to know him and his wife, and he got to know her and her kids.
He got sick a year later, and she would come to visit him at home. His wife has had three strokes and could not care for him.
With a year of nursing school in her background, Strong noticed that he had bedsores and that they weren't being dressed properly. He wasn't being bathed, and his sheets had not been changed in seven weeks.
'I couldn't help it,' Strong said. 'I just took over.'
The path that led Harmon to that low point began Aug. 13, 1977. A Saturday. According to police reports, Dane Allison Estepp, 25, got drunk on Mad Dog wine, smoked pot and got into an argument with his girlfriend, then began firing his .22-caliber bolt-action rifle out of his second-story window onto Southeast Belmont Street.
Harmon was one of the first cops to respond, arriving at 5:35 p.m. He was hit and paralyzed almost instantly.
Cops and rescue workers pulled him out on a stretcher behind a human shield.
No one else was hit.
Estepp fatally shot himself shortly after he shot Harmon.
Harmon harbors no bad feelings for Estepp, just sorrow that a young man let himself get that far out of control.
He still remembers the case number -77-58899 - and donated the rifle and the bullet fragments removed from his body to the Portland Police Museum on the 16th floor of the Justice Center downtown. They remain on permanent display, along with photos of him, an Oregonian news story by Leslie Zaitz and his badge, No. 63.
He returned to the police bureau in March 1978 as a crime analyst at Central Precinct. He was one of the first Portland cops to return to a police job full time after being seriously injured in the line of duty. When he retired in 1981, he had the same job at North Precinct, where he transferred after the police bureau installed an elevator.
Ticket leads to the loot
Harmon made and sold pottery from his retirement until the early 1990s but stopped when it wasn't profitable enough to offset the taxes he paid.
And he missed having an impact. Though there is much mundane waiting time between finding a suspicious permit and a person coming out of a store to receive a ticket served by hand, there are more exciting stories.
'One was a young guy, and the permit comes back to a guy who's deceased,' Harmon said. 'I check the guy's real name, and it turns out he's got a warrant out for his arrest. I call Portland police, and the dummy stays right there with me, waiting.'
Turns out the plates on the van were switched, the van was stolen and, when Portland police arrived, they found items from five burglaries in the van.
'He goes to jail, and all because he's dumb enough to park in a handicapped space,' Harmon said.
Spot's not forced on driver
On Monday at the Fred Meyer at Southeast 148th Avenue and Division Street, where Harmon said he comes frequently, Strong spotted a dark green Ford Explorer she said was suspicious. Oregon plate, Washington placard. The parking lot had plenty of unmarked open spaces.
A weathered woman in pale blue jeans and brown sandals, maybe 50, had the driver's door open.
'Excuse me,' Harmon said.
The woman, whose dyed-red hair was pulled back in a ponytail, admitted the placard was not hers, it belonged to a friend in poor health and she ran his errands for him. He was not with her, as is required by law.
With the admission, Harmon began writing the $450 ticket.
'He's too sick to be present,' she said. 'He's running out of his tanks of oxygen, so I hope this won't take long.'
'Won't take long,' Harmon said.
'What's this going to do to him?' she asked.
'Nothing to him,' Harmon said, not looking up and still writing.
'What's this going to do to me?' she asked.
'I'll tell you all that in a minute,' Harmon said.
He looked her in the eye and gave her the ticket. Then he told her how much it cost to pay the fine.
'There's no way I can pay that,' she said. 'I live in subsidized housing, and I'm caring for a friend who's dying.'
'I'm sorry,' Harmon said. 'You have violated the law.'
The woman shook her head, got into the Explorer and drove away.
Afterward, Harmon said it was difficult to listen to stories like that and not show pity.
'It comes down to not being able to worry about whether she's on disability or whatever while I'm performing this job,' he said. 'Once I had the admission from her that the placard was not her own, there's very little I can do. On the other hand, no one forced her to park there.'
Which is not to say he never shows compassion.
The woman in the Wal-Mart parking lot, crying with her ticket in hand, clearly in pain and lifting up her shirt to show her back brace, has a chance to get out of her $450 fine.
'If you show up to court with a valid permit registered to you, I'll recommend to the judge we dismiss the ticket,' Harmon told her. 'Fair to you?'