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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Professional Roles, Police Discretion, and Political Decisions

Dennis Fox

June 3 , 2004

In April I wrote that Assistant Director of Transportation David Friend and Police Captain Peter Scott were "seeking to dampen the [Transportation] Board's growing acknowledgement that its [two-hour parking-limit] rule creates preventable hardship." In response, Friend wrote me to defend his actions. And he's right to say, of course, that the board makes all final decisions and that no solution is perfect. He's right that town boards frequently take no action. He's even right about my column's negative tone.

But he's wrong to characterize as unfair my conclusion that he and Scott "should help craft a workable alternative rather than stand in the way."

More than a year ago, after tougher enforcement penalized even more people for parking in front of their homes, former Selectman Marty Rosenthal pushed for a change. The Transportation Board subsequently held hearings in April and December 2003; in February it met again but left the issue unresolved.

Before each meeting, Friend wrote a detailed memo examining potential solutions. For example, he criticized the confusing link between the two-hour rule and resident-only parking restrictions in some neighborhoods. Despite their usefulness, however, the three memos Friend sent me illustrate two concerns: the transportation director too readily blends professional and personal judgment, and his description of our existing discretionary approach is misleadingly positive.

The first issue concerns a professional expert's role in democratic decision making. Although experts' education and training help them assess situations and present options, we don't hire them to make value judgments. Thus, we expect doctors to describe available treatments and prognoses, not to let their own feelings about pain or quality of life push a patient toward any particular decision. Professional expertise has boundaries.

In Memo I, the Assistant Director of Transportation writes "I have injected some personal comments to spur your thinking on the subject." He acknowledges a "small group of residents may have experienced some hardship" but says the 5,500 two-hour tickets town residents receive annually "cannot be considered burdensome" because the town has 40,000 cars. Then he cautions the board "not to over-react and over-emphasize the individual stories of hardship that will inevitably be presented" because "the board will ultimately have to decide if the nature and incidence of that cumulative and individual hardship is more important than the public benefits."

Although Friend accurately identifies the board's balancing responsibility, it's not his job to tilt board members toward his own opinion about what counts as a hardship or how many hardships create a burden worth addressing.

Memo II cautiously supports a variety of relatively minor rule changes, subject to police agreement. By Memo III, however, after police consultation, Friend concludes "that no changes [should] be made to the existing ... rule." Individual hardships, he insists, can effectively be prevented or remedied by the existing two-part solution: temporary parking permits and police discretion.

According to Friend, Brookline "issues temporary parking permits to those who have temporary hardships" and those who "would like to have their guests, contractors, [and] daycare providers park on street for longer than 2 hours." This is news to many. Even the Transportation Department website notes only that the Police Department issues permits when a regular parking spot is temporarily unavailable (up to two days, writes Friend).

One memo explains that the Department of Public Works also issues temporary permits, "regularly," though this practice is "not actively publicized." Secretiveness is bad enough, but temporary permits, even if conveniently available, wouldn't help families whose visiting caregivers need long-term solutions.

Equally unsatisfying is Friend's reliance on absolute police discretion. Giving officers too much power creates inconsistency and resentment. Recent publicity about police favoritism toward town selectmen and their families magnifies that resentment.

Despite Friend's assurance that "residents can use the ticket hearing process for relief ... when the 2-hour regulation is strictly enforced," hearing decisions remain unpredictable. Besides, the town website tells residents to appeal only if they think they've been "improperly ticketed." Most don't appeal a ticket that's legally "proper" even when it's unfair or silly. They just resent the ticket, the police, and the law, as they should.

That's why I think minimizing hardship and inaccurately describing the status quo do indeed stand in the way.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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