We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The stretch of Georgia Avenue just north of the District line is a run-down commercial strip full of tattoo parlors, beeper outlets, and check-cashing joints found in most low-rent strip malls. But here in Maryland, the sidewalk tree boxes are bracketed by wrought iron, the trash cans similarly adorned, and the parking meters erect and sparkling. As the strip spills into District territory, the commercial backdrop doesn’t change much. The difference is in the smallest details. Unlike the Maryland side of the street, D.C.’s Georgia Avenue is trash-strewn, and the only sidewalk art consists of mangled metal pipes that once supported parking meters.

The broken meters along Georgia Avenue in the District seem a natural part of a landscape where buildings have been abandoned, and the few customers who visit the remaining stores have no need for parking. The street is blighted, and the welcoming committee of mangled meters signals visitors that they are entering a city without consequence. One look at the shorn meter pipes and it’s no surprise that the trophy store was robbed in broad daylight last week.

The city’s rows of decapitated meters are not unlike the subway graffiti sociologist Nathan Glazer described 20 years ago in an essay for The Public Interest. Glazer wrote that graffiti imbues the passerby with “the inescapable knowledge that the environment he must endure for an hour or more a day is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, and that anyone can invade it to do whatever damage and mischief the mind suggests.”

The crownless posts along Georgia Avenue are among 3,000 of the District’s 15,000 parking meters that have been smashed, stolen, or robbed since January. When the first meter heads started to roll en masse late last year, District residents and commuters responded with delight. Whacking a cast-iron parking meter was seen as open defiance—a big, loud “fuck you” to a city government that relentlessly takes from its citizens and gives only attitude in return. Drivers got a vicarious thrill from each beheading, imagining middle-class taxpayers like themselves getting revenge for each rude encounter at the DMV, every street not plowed, every tax dollar wasted.

It took only one brick to start the blood lust. Soon, one topless meter became 10, and those 10 became whole city blocks full of wounded quarter suckers. The meter vandal became hero, quietly cheered by drivers who rushed to park in the newly freed spaces. In January, as the meter casualties were piling up, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil insisted that public resentment against the city’s highly efficient parking enforcement was behind the rampant meter destruction. “This is a direct result of the city’s greed,” Brazil told the Washington Post. “For so long, the administration has tried to bilk the motorist at every step. No one is condoning these actions, but people have finally had it.”

But as winter edged into spring, evidence surfaced that yuppie drivers were not taking bat to meter. Instead, the city’s army of streetside tax collectors has fallen prey to a handful of homeless people, drug addicts, and a ring of creative criminals who have decimated dozens of city blocks for small change. The heroic meter vigilante turned out to be the same crackhead who stole the flower pots off your front stoop and the same reprobate who threw a brick through the window of your car and stole your CDs—people pissed about things far more serious than aggressive meter maids.

Yet rather than shudder at the implication, drivers talked of legal defense funds for “victims” caught liberating parking spaces from their overlords. In a strange twist of fate, the self-interest of the criminal and the selfishness of the citizen converged at the parking meter. While meter poachers undoubtedly know what damage their crime wreaks, citizens who champion them as a modern-day Robin Hoods fail to recognize their own complicity in hastening the death of our city.

Social scientists have long believed that urban blight starts like a summer cold that over time turns into pneumonia. The symptoms are mild at first—trash strewn along gutters, graffiti on a school wall. A broken window. But eventually, if the trash is not collected, the window not repaired, a neighborhood will reach a tipping point where all the windows will be broken. And the affliction can take root anywhere.

In 1969, psychologist Philip Zumbro tested the broken window theory by leaving a car without license plates unattended, with its hood up, on a street in Palo Alto, Ca. There, the car would remain untouched by vandals for weeks, while an identical car left in the crime-infested Bronx would be stripped clean within minutes. Yet in Palo Alto, Zumbro discovered that if he smashed the window of a car and abandoned it on a street, even “respectable whites” would soon pilfer the car of all its valuables.

Sociologist James Q. Wilson described Zumbro’s study and other police research on the broken window theory in his 1983 book, Thinking About Crime. He concluded, “Vandalism can occur anywhere once communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that seem to signal that ‘no one cares.’” Wilson saw the untended neighborhood as a breeding ground for crime, which in turn prompts the exodus of law-abiding people. The community is then abandoned to a criminal underclass and those unable to escape it: the poor and the elderly. The blight becomes intractable.

Headless meters are our broken windows. And their sheer numbers suggest that the District has reached its tipping point, where disorder has accelerated beyond the government’s ability to stop it. So while commuters may revel in the free parking afforded by acts of vandalism, they may soon suffer from the collapse of civil society that accompanies it. “What was quaint has become dangerous,” observes University of Pennsylvania ethnographer Elijah Anderson. Crestfallen meters are an ominous sign that the next broken windows in the District may be made of plate glass. The poor and castoffs have nothing to lose by clubbing parking meters for laundry money; what’s left to stop them from moving on to acts of greater defiance?

Even in the world of parking meter vandals, the gifted find a way to leave their trademark. Many of the city’s headless meters have been crippled by the homeless and other scavengers who pop the tops off to score the measly seven bucks or so that’s within reach. The real meter booty, though, is in the vault into which the coins eventually drop. After a good day, the vault may hold as much as $40, but cast-iron casings make it a much more difficult score. According to Ronald Jackson, the city’s acting chief of security and parking meter maintenance, one District bandit has become proficient at cracking open the vaults of one particular model known as the “POM” meter, a 30-year-old relic of municipal government.

This thief has left behind blocks and blocks of meters that still have heads but have been fully gutted, like those along 18th Street in Adams Morgan. “We see his work all over,” says Jackson. “When we caught him the first time, he had broken into 700 meters.” At one time, says Jackson, this particular individual worked for the city water department until internal affairs found out that he was taking bribes from people to turn their water back on after it had been disconnected for nonpayment. He was fired, but according to Jackson, his former employers never collected his uniform, which looks a lot like the meter repair uniform. “People thought he was a government employee,” says Jackson, so they wouldn’t turn him in when he was collecting quarters in the middle of the night.

The criminal justice system has had little deterrent effect on this guy, too, says Jackson. “He was just a lowlife. Some of our ticket writers would see this guy breaking into meters on the way to court,” he says. “That guy got 90 days [in jail] and things slowed down, but after 90 days, [meter thefts] picked up again.”

The water guy represents the small but highly efficient group of solo practitioners who are decimating the city’s parking system. Jackson marvels at their productivity, but he has concluded that an organized ring of criminals is responsible for most of the denuded city blocks. He says the meter Mafia has gotten so sophisticated that it can remove meters faster than city workers can. The ring made the evening news in March, after Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas announced the discovery of a dump of 200 shattered meters behind an abandoned storefront at 4th and H Streets NE. City officials estimated then that the vandalism epidemic had cost the District $3 million in lost revenue, a figure that has since grown to $6 million.

While those quarters do add up, the rarest breed of meter basher is out for recreation, not for loot. “Most people, they don’t like parking meters,” explains Jackson. “I think it’s a psychological thing. People don’t like paying to park in public space.” He says that one meter perp drove along the street next to the Children’s Museum bashing heads off the meters with an aluminum bat. “He didn’t even stop to take the money out,” says Jackson. In fact, he says, “we found a number of instances where the meter mechanism is gone but the money is still left visible for the taking. It makes you wonder what this is all about.”

Jackson says despite all the media buzz, parking meter decapitation isn’t a new phenomenon. “Every time they would show that movie Cool Hand Luke on TV, we’d have some idiot out there doing the same thing,” says Jackson. (In the 1967 movie, Paul Newman gets sentenced to two years on a chain gang for cutting off the heads of parking meters with a pipe cutter.)

“The construction workers have always done it,” he adds, explaining that the workers would get a lot of tickets because they couldn’t come down from the high buildings to plug the meters. Since they had the tools, the workers would just dismantle the meters instead. Meters around universities are routinely clogged with glue or bubble gum, or the tops get sprayed with paint so meters can’t be read, says Jackson.

The current epidemic, though, started around the homeless shelter on 2nd Street SW and then around public parks where homeless men congregate, according to Jackson. “I started making noise about it in 1993,” he says. Jackson wrote letters to the District’s myriad law enforcement agencies—Park Police, State Department Police, Capitol Police—to solicit their help in cracking down on the meter vandals, but none of them responded. “It wasn’t until this year that people started paying attention to it,” he says.

In the beginning, he says, most of the thieves would just pop open the tops of the meters with a screwdriver or brick. “It’s not very much money in the tops, but when you don’t have any money, some money is better than no money,” says Jackson. Since then, he says, “It has escalated well beyond homeless people.” Jackson encountered one road agent who would tie a chain around meters after it had rained and then pull them out of the ground with his truck. Constitution Hall security guards recently told Jackson that they caught some guys pulling up in front of the building with a U-Haul to cart off meters.

“People here spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to take advantage of meters,” says Jackson. “Other jurisdictions don’t have this problem. People just got a vendetta against the District.” As further proof, Jackson reports that the police recently caught one guy who was coming all the way from Baltimore to break D.C. meters. “Why he didn’t just stay in Baltimore and break into Baltimore meters I’ll never know,” Jackson muses.

Shortly after its invention in 1935 by an Oklahoma City newspaper editor, the parking meter was dubbed “Black Maria” and came to symbolize the pettiness of local government. Yet the simple contraption serves several important civil functions. Obviously, meters raise revenue to pay for government services—District meters once raised $16 million a year. But the parking meter is also a tool for maintaining order. Stationed as guards along city streets, meters are designed to ration a public commodity—parking spaces—so that everyone gets a fair shot at a good spot.

By attempting to evenly distribute public resources, though, the parking meter intrudes on the American motorist’s sense of entitlement to life, liberty, and free stuff from the government.

Consequently, the heroic parking meter bandit has deep roots in the American imagination. In his 1965 novel, Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce made brilliant use of the parking meter as metaphor for an oppressive government. Luke is a shellshocked World War II veteran who comes back from the war as a decorated private, pissed off at the government and devastated by the desertion of his girlfriend, Helen, which he blames on the military, too.

After he goes on a drinking binge one night, Luke sets out down main street in his truck and begins to anthropomorphize the meters. Pearce writes: “All he could see were the green benches and the parking meters spaced along the curbs. He realized that they were advancing, marching forward in open ranks, a battalion of emaciated soldiers with ugly faces beneath odd-shaped foreign helmets. And across the forehead of every one of them was tattooed in red letters the word VIOLATION.”

Ranting against the meters, Luke stops and fetches the pipe cutter out of his truck, yelling, “Look out you bastards. You can’t challenge me that-a-way. I got a pass. Signed by the old Provost Marshal himself. Yeah. Ole Chicken Shit Williams. Ker-nel Chicken Shit, I mean….Violation? I’ll show ’em some real violations….O.K. Mister General, you son of a bitch. Sir….So you gave me your fuckin’ medal and now everything’s just copacetic. Well, I gotta cut your god damned head off. It’s a matter of principle. It’s my god damned patriotic duty.”

Unlike Newman’s on-screen slow dance with the pipecutter, the literary Luke wages a noisy, in-your-face war on the meters. He brings them down one by one, with an indolent clang on the pavement. After beheading the Main Street army, Luke encounters a small town cop who is dumbfounded by Luke’s brazen destruction of public property. When the cop asks Luke who he is, he replies with a laugh, “I dunno. You might say I was a parkin’ meter bandit.”

Marshall Blonsky, author of American Mythologies and a professor of semiotics at New York University, says chopping the head off a parking meter is really an old fantasy. “It’s a dream of liberation from governance,” he says. “The permitted way of such acting out is carnival, which we don’t have in the United States.” As a result, Blonsky says Americans make carnival. “The nice, safe way to do it is to beat the brains out of a parking meter,” he explains. “It’s a nicer way to let out your pissed-offness than getting rowdy at a soccer match.”

Blonsky is not surprised that Washingtonians perform their carnival dances around beheaded meters. “Where could the dream of liberation from governance be more perfervid than in the nation’s capital?” he asks. “And where could it be acted out so well, without consequence, than in a place where the mayor acted on some impulses to smoke crack?”

Blonsky also says it’s no coincidence that the city’s meter destruction has coincided with Draconian cuts in the social safety net. “The vandals are the castoffs of the city. When no money is going toward a group of people, that’s a certain sign that they’re not needed, and people know that. The vandalism is a recognizable sign of payback,” he says.

University of Pennsylvania’s Anderson wonders whether the city’s leaders make the connection between the economic distress and the vandalism. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum. Some of the most alienated people can be very creative getting back at society,” he says.

Perennial candidate and local activist John Capozzi was out putting up campaign signs around Eastern Market at 1 a.m. on a Friday night in March (“I wanted to win,” explains Capozzi) when he saw a guy pull out a screwdriver, pop open the top of a meter, and take out the money. “It took about two seconds. He knew I was across the street. And there was a guy on the phone about 15 feet away. It was so brazen,” says Capozzi.

Capozzi, who prides himself as a Guardian Angel in a business suit, is about the only District resident who would go out of his way to bring justice to a meter vandal. Last spring, he made the news when he chased down a purse snatcher near the Washington Convention Center. Then this winter, he snared a couple of gentlemen sacking a van in his neighborhood near D.C. General. But thwarting the burglary also earned Capozzi a broken nose, and since then, he’s been a little more conservative in his crime fighting. So when he saw the guy pop the meter, Capozzi hid behind a campaign poster and called 911 on his cell phone.

About 30 seconds later, Capozzi says a cop came by as part of a regular patrol, and the vandal sat down at one of the tables in front of Eastern Market. The cop didn’t stop, so Capozzi called the police again and followed the culprit in his car as he walked down an alley. Finally, Capozzi managed to flag down a cop, who arrested the man. “They searched the guy and found a screwdriver and $7.50 in quarters—about all you get out of the top. Then they took him away,” says Capozzi.

While Capozzi got kudos for his other caped crusades, his friends didn’t respond so well when they learned he had caught a meter thief. He says one out of every four people he knows has said, “What did you do that for?” One of Capozzi’s friends even wanted to know how she could set up a legal defense fund for the “victim.”

“There’s a real sickness in that,” says Capozzi.

The sickness seems endemic, too. One of Jackson’s biggest obstacles in nabbing the District’s parking meter vandals is getting the citizenry to cooperate with him. He says hot dog vendors and other street regulars often see meter bandits at work, but they suddenly come down with amnesia when the police ask them about it. Jackson says the meter Mafia that operates out of abandoned buildings is another case in point. He says busting open the iron vaults is a very noisy operation, and there’s no way people could live next door to one of these dumps and not know what was going on.

In March, the Post quoted a few neighbors around the meter dump at 4th and H Streets NE who said they’d been complaining to the city for months about the racket. But Jackson says no one ever called him, and after checking police records he discovered that no one called the cops to report the noise either. Jackson is sure that the neighbors knew what was going on but says, “The citizens won’t help.”

On their own, the police have managed to arrest about 40 suspects since the beginning of the year. Still, Jackson says nine or 10 of those people have been arrested on more than two occasions and the judges and prosecutors just don’t take the crime very seriously. “We have a number of repeat individuals,” he explains. “They know the system won’t hold them accountable. I think if they had made an example out of a few people early on, we wouldn’t be having this problem.”

U.S. Attorney Eric Holder has agreed to apply stiffer penalties to the meter thieves, but Jackson says the message hasn’t filtered down to the people who actually charge the cases. Consequently, rather than charge the repeat meter vandals with felonies, the prosecutors are still letting them off with misdemeanor charges. The line prosecutors have told Jackson that despite what Holder said they can’t waste scarce jail space with homeless guys who robbed parking meters when they need the space for violent criminals.

Even when the vandals do get convicted of a misdemeanor, Jackson says sometimes the court waves restitution because it appears the defendant can’t pay. The combined neglect of the courts and prosecutors has not been lost on the cops, who are loath to waste time arresting meter vandals. Jackson says a cop told him recently that when she sees people breaking into parking meters now, she just tells them to move on. “The system has broken down,” says Jackson. “I’ve got guys over there four and five times caught on the same charge. If nothing else, they ought to make them sweep the streets or something.”

Terence Keeney, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, says the typical meter thief is poor and homeless, and usually presents a kind of “Jean Valjean defense” in court, arguing that he broke into a meter to keep from starving. Judges and prosecutors alike are leery of incarcerating such people. But Keeney says prosecutors have sent at least two of the pending misdemeanor cases involving repeat offenders to grand juries to be charged as felonies. “For people who go out and do it again, we’ll present them to the grand jury,” Keeney insists.

After 23 years in city government, Jackson can remember when the District’s parking enforcement was so good that foreign dignitaries used to visit his office to see how it all worked. Now, though, there’s not a diplomat in town who would visit Jackson’s office in the basement of a nearly abandoned old school near Union Station that probably should have been condemned years ago.

Jackson shares the basement with the city’s $13 million (and shrinking) coin-counting operation, a meter graveyard, and a whole lot of bugs. Floods have been stanched with empty quarter bags along walls that crumble and peel like blue cheese. The bugs and floods prompted the city to relocate the parking enforcement operation that used to occupy the floors above, but Jackson’s basement operation was left to suffer through nine years of floods and broken promises of new space. This is where Jackson has been fighting to keep the city’s parking meters from becoming its broken windows. The meter bandits are winning the war.

Looking around at the cave that serves as his office, Jackson says, “We went from the penthouse to the outhouse in a short period of time. I’ve never seen this operation this bad.”

Rather than fix the problems, city officials are mired in conflict over a decision to privatize the meter operation and turn it over to a subsidiary of defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile, despite Jackson’s best efforts to prevent it, the city is hemorrhaging money from parking meters.

Budget cuts have decimated the staff and equipment to keep the enterprise up and running. Jackson’s repair shop is down from 11 guys to five—all the city has to maintain 15,000 parking meters. The repair workers have been scavenging parts to fix what they can since the control board stopped letting them order new equipment. The lack of equipment and manpower means that the city can only fix beheaded meters one at a time rather than streets at a time, and the maintenance people are starting to wonder why they even bother since the bandits break them faster than they can fix them. “We fix the same meters over and over and over again,” says Jackson.

And while the court cases haven’t slowed down the criminals, they have nearly frozen Jackson in his tracks. He has been in court almost daily for the past few months testifying in the 37 or so criminal vandalism cases currently in the works. The court appearances have made it hard for Jackson to police his own in-house meter operation, one of his primary duties. Others include overseeing meter repairs and maintenance and investigating reports of corrupt tow-truck drivers and ticket writers who’ve been shaking down drivers for cash.

Recently, Jackson says two of his employees “thought they’d do some collecting of their own” and worked out a scam to steal some of the money they collected from the city’s meters. He caught another guy taking money right out of the coin room during the day. “He was putting a serious dent in the meter revenue,” says Jackson. He says the guy played in a band and would shovel coins into his guitar case while Jackson was away from the office. The employee made off with well over $100,000 in change largely because the city had failed to repair the security cameras that were supposed to monitor the coin room. Finally, Jackson says, “We borrowed equipment from the police department. The first night the equipment was there we caught him.” Despite the money saved by one simple video camera, the city still hasn’t invested the money to fix the equipment Jackson needs.

Offers of help from District politicians have only worsened matters. This spring, for example, when Councilmember Thomas announced the discovery of a dump of broken parking meters, he brought along a posse of 5th District police officers to stand guard and wait for the perpetrators. The staged event managed to destroy Jackson’s earliest prospect of snaring some industrious members of the meter Mafia. Jackson had been working with the 1st District police to put the dump under surveillance, but Thomas’ 5th District officers didn’t know anything about the operation. Neither did the bandits, until they saw Thomas grandstanding in front of a slew of TV crews about the discovery, Jackson suspects. Needless to say, they never returned to the site. Jackson sent a message to Thomas’ office that day, telling him that the police knew of three other dump sites in that same location. “Tell Harry to stay away from them,” Jackson told Thomas’ staffers.

Sometimes even good help isn’t enough to overcome the odds against Jackson. Earlier this year, he spent months trailing one of the city’s prolific solo meter raiders. He knew his car. He knew at what time the guy set out at night to go on demolition missions. He knew what tools the guy used to pop open the iron vault in the city’s oldest parking meters, dozens of which he had singlehandedly demolished. Jackson had spent months helplessly scavenging parts to repair the trail of broken meters the guy left behind, only to have him come back and break them again.

Jackson pleaded with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) for help, but the department —like his own shop—was short-staffed and unable to commit the gobs of overtime and manpower to snare a two-bit parking meter hacker. Finally, though, Jackson convinced MPD that he needed only one night to catch the guy in action. He was right, sort of.

On their first night out, Jackson waited with the cops for the bandit to strike. Just like clockwork, he showed up at the designated spot. But something wasn’t right. “He doesn’t have his car,” said Jackson. The guy wandered around, didn’t do anything, and the surveillance operation was scrapped for the night. Perplexed, Jackson did a little research and discovered that the guy’s car had ended up at the Brentwood impound lot. The guy had outstanding tickets, and that very day parking enforcement had impounded his car, with all his tools. “Parking enforcement was doing their job, but the timing was just so bad,” laughs Jackson. “We had him! You got to laugh to keep from crying.”

Michael Ashby squirms in his seat as he waits on the morning of June 6 for Superior Court Judge Richard Morin to call his case and sentence him for violating a parking meter—in plain view of John Capozzi. Although Capozzi had hounded prosecutors to throw the book at the vandal, the case was apparently so minor that Ashby’s own lawyer forgets about the case and shows up an hour late. When the lawyer finally arrives, the judge immediately postpones Ashby’s case until after lunch so that Ashby can pay $100 into the victims of crime fund for court costs. “Good job getting that money,” Morin tells him. “I know you worked hard for it.”

“Oh, I sure did, your honor,” replies Ashby.

At 2:30, Ashby returns to court. He’s short, kind of pudgy, with close-cropped hair, plaid shirt, jeans, and running shoes. With a bit of a lisping baby voice, Ashby isn’t exactly what you’d expect a meter bandit to look like. He rehearses his speech to the judge with his lawyer before the proceedings get started. He sweats while waiting for the judge to instruct a deadlocked jury in another case.

Finally, the judge calls Ashby and asks him if he’s paid the $100, which he has. Ashby’s lawyer says he has no prior record, that he is now gainfully employed, and that he would ask the court to impose a restitution order without probation. When Ashby gets his chance to speak, he says, “I’d first like to apologize to the court. I had a lot of idle time then. I’m now using my time wisely,” adding that he’s now working 12- and 14-hour days. Morin orders him to pay $352 in restitution to fix the meter he broke and sentences him to 18 months supervised probation, which will become unsupervised once he pays the restitution. He’s good to go.

As Ashby prepares to leave, the judge tells him, “Pay that money. Don’t pay it in quarters.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jimmy Cohrssen, Darrow Montgomery, Charles Steck, and James Watts.