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Up until August, there were two reliable ways to avoid getting your car booted, short of actually paying your parking tickets. You could park on a major thoroughfare such as 16th Street NW, where the city worries that a booted car will gum up traffic. Or you could park east of the river—the vans that chug around the District looking for ticket scofflaws to boot only rarely crossed the Anacostia.
That ended on Aug. 16, when the Department of Public Works (DPW) started sending boot crews to regularly canvass east-of-the-river neighborhoods for cars with three or more overdue parking tickets. Booter Edwin Pacheco says he and colleagues had been pressing the agency to expand its range. “Some of us booters wanted it because boots over here got too few,” he says while cruising downtown. “We want to get more boots.”
And more boots they got. Having lived for so long free from the orange menace, the delinquents were caught off guard; the new territory was a veritable booting bonanza. DPW spokesperson Mary Myers says that booters nailed 538 vehicles in the first four weeks. “There were boots everywhere—six boots a block,” says Pacheco. In Northwest neighborhoods, a typical day of hunting will yield between 10 and 15 bootable vehicles. In Southeast, says booter Larry Worrell, the crews were nailing 30 to 40.
Myers says that some booters were indeed pushing for the change, but the move was made more in response to Southeast residents and businesses who requested better parking enforcement. At the same time, the agency hired nine additional booters and bought another van equipped with license-plate scanners, bringing the fleet to three.
“The booting crews have always been deployed in the places with the most dense parking needs. In at least the near past, that’s primarily been areas around downtown and entertainment and destination centers,” Myers told the Washington City Paper in late August, as the program was ramping up. “Now that we have a few more resources, it’s time to broaden that scope.”
It seemed like one more step forward in the city’s inexorable march toward efficient governance. But the DPW noticed something wasn’t going according to the script. Instead of paying overdue parking tickets and having the city remove the boots, residents were doing it themselves.
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According to Worrell, about 100 boots were lost in the first few weeks, convincing the DPW to scrap its east-of-the-river crackdown. Myers says that the actual number of boots lost was 52. At $294 apiece, that’s still more than $15,000 worth of equipment. Myers says the DPW “went back to the drawing board” to figure out how to lose fewer boots.
“Them people over there,” says Worrell, “they’re not bullshitting. They’re not used to being booted. They’re not putting up with that shit.”
The problem is an economic one. Many of the cars that Worrell and Pacheco say they’ve booted owed significant amounts of money—plenty owe $600 or more. One car Worrell remembers owed $2,000—and was likely worth half that. It doesn’t make sense to pay a fine worth more than the ride itself. And the downside of damaging a hoopty while ripping the boot off is less of a concern.
The most popular method, the two booters say, involves rocking the car forward and back to loosen the boot, then taking a crowbar to it. Cars with fat tires are easiest; by deflating the tire the boot is loosened enough that it comes off more easily. Even then, says Worrell, the task is a hard one. “It’s a job, but they’ll do it. They got a hundred boots,” he said. “You know those cats out there was working.”
The DPW faces a logistical problem, too. Before it began sending booters east of the river on a regular basis, the agency would do full-force sweeps of the area instead, sending almost all of the agency’s tow trucks in after the booters. Shortly after a car was booted, a truck would haul it away. But since the new Southeast patrol was part of the everyday route, only the normal two trucks were deployed citywide and cars weren’t towed in a particularly timely manner, say the booters. “By the time the [tow truck] gets to it, those cats will have the boot off,” Worrell says.
An east-of-the-river booter needs more than a fleet of tow trucks. Recently, the DPW has revived the plan and booters have gone back across the river; Myers says that city police are notified when booters will be in their area.
On Monday, Sept. 18, one of those booters was Worrell. As he was booting a car, the driver got into it and threw it in reverse, breaking off the boot that had only been half-installed. “The boot went halfway down the block,” says Worrell.
While Worrell was booting his next car, near Naylor and Good Hope Road SE, a man walked out of a nearby house and showed him the handle of a gun jutting out of his sweatpants. “He showed me his smoker and said, ‘Take it off,’” recounts Worrell.
He took it off. He said his supervisor told him he made the right choice. (Myers says that in such a situation, Worrell should have immediately called the police and his supervisor.)
But Worrell has made another choice: He won’t return to work until he feels safe, saying that the booters are not properly equipped to work across the Anacostia. A boot’s not worth losing his life for, he says. “I’ve been shot before. I’m not getting shot again.”CP