Goodbye chalk, hello 21st century technology

By Katrina Lewis

The Lexington Police Department is revamping its parking enforcement with new technology and a new vehicle — and some changes to old codes. 

Two weeks ago, the department’s Special Enforcement Division began using  a “virtual tagging” system that uses small digital cameras, installed on police cars, to keep track of cars parked in time-restricted spots.

Officers up until now had to manually mark tires with chalk, leaning out of their vehicles to get the job done. The new technology, provided by the Texas-based NuPark company, uses  license plate recognition to make a time-stamped record of parked vehicles.

“We’ve been chalking tires for a long time here in the city,” interim Police Chief Mark Riley said. “And now we’re basically replacing a chalk stick with a computer.”

The NuPark system has been installed in a new parking-enforcement vehicle. A camera  mounted on top of the vehicle records parked cars’ license plates, said Riley. The web-based application was designed for the everyday management of parking operations and is used by universities, cities, medical centers and airports across the country.

“This way we will have pictures, things are going to be time-stamped,” Riley said. “It’s going to be a whole lot more efficient.”

The council used NuPark as an opportunity to update its parking enforcement code.

Special Enforcement Officer Matthew Lombardi said the police department and  Lexington City Council have also taken the opportunity to review the city’s parking code.

Last Thursday, Council held a public hearing for an ordinance designed to help the city make the transition to the NuPark system. The ordinance includes several changes to the city traffic code’s language, to integrate the new system into the code. Words like “virtual” and “digital” were added to describe how the system marks vehicles.

The council unanimously approved the ordinance after no one spoke during the public hearing.

The ordinance also changed a few other outdated aspects of the city’s parking code.

It added a section to cover one-hour parking, which exists in the city but was not addressed in the code. Fines for time violations were also increased to correspond with those charged in other Virginia cities. First-, second- and third-offense fines were raised from $15, $30 and $60 to $20, $40 and $80, respectively.

Lombardi said the city started its search for a new parking-enforcement system by posting a request for proposals from different companies. Several companies then visited Lexington to demo their systems.

“We shopped around, we looked around,” Riley said. “We found the best fit for the best price.”  He said the implementation of NuPark was budgeted for fiscal year 2017.

Parking is one of the most important duties for the Special Enforcement Division, said Lombardi, and he took an active part in the selection process, beginning his research on different parking management systems about a year and a half ago.

The goal of parking enforcement

“The police department’s goal is actually not to write tickets—we want everyone to comply,” Lombardi said. “I think when people see that we have the best technology that parking enforcement has to offer, people will choose to obey the two-hour time limit or whatever time limit it is.”

Lombardi added that efficiency is the primary benefit of using NuPark instead of chalk.

“It takes less time to go out and mark the timed parking spaces,” Lombardi said. “The computer logs all of the vehicles instead of the officer needing to track the times.”

Most of the changes associated with NuPark will not affect consumers, said Riley.

“No time changes, no major changes as far as enforcement,” Riley said. “The majority of the changes will be internally, with us.”

A long time coming

Council member and Washington Street Purveyors owner Chuck Smith said updating parking enforcement has been a recurring topic for downtown business owners.

“As a downtown merchant, I support the program of improving the effectiveness and efficiency of enforcing our parking rules,” Smith said in an email. “I have been involved with this issue for over 20 years.”

Lombardi said NuPark also benefits officers because it comes as part of a new, safer vehicle to replace the division’s old three-wheel utility vehicle.

“You had to lean out to mark tires with one hand and try to drive with the other hand,” Lombardi said about using the old vehicle. “With officer safety in mind…we’re happy the new vehicle has made driving around the city a lot safer for the officers that go out and write the tickets.”

At the council hearing, City Manager Noah Simon said the system illustrates how the city is working to stay up-to-date with technology.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking about in my two years here is embracing technology,” he said, “and this is a great example of that.”