Airman Steven D. Lowe's face turned as crimson as his Good Conduct Medal when he walked from his Pentagon office recently to discover three tickets on the windshield of his blue Chevrolet. Among the charges was having a bald tire.
Library of Congress researcher David P. Carey was pedaling his bicycle through the Pentagon parking lots when a police officer pulled him over in a tunnel under Shirley Highway. His charge was biking in an unauthorized area.
"That parking lot is becoming a battlefield," says U.S. Magistrate Quin S. Elson of incidents such as these that have left some of the nation's highest military brass in the unaccustomed position of grousing about those who wield authority.
"I think those officers are tremendously harassing . . . guilty of overzealous enforcement," harrumphed a bemedaled Army colonel yesterday as he appeared in Elson's court to challenge one of the 2,000 tickets issued each month by the Pentagon's force of 166 police officers.
Police at any other military post might be intimidated by a gruff telephone call from an admiral or general complaining about a ticket. Not so at the Pentagon, where the world's largest office parking lot is patrolled by the blue-shirted Federal Protective Service, a branch of the General Services Administration.
Anger such as that felt by the Army colonel has become a familiar emotion to many of the 26,000 Pentagon employes who daily use the building's 10,000 parking spaces and wind up in the clutches of the federal police.
"It's like a church on Sunday," said magistrate Elson yesterday during one of the two "Pentagon Days" held each month. "The Christianity we learn on the inside is lost when we get outside."
Federal Protective Service officials stoutly defend the actions of their officers. "If we weren't firm in the issuance of tickets, we'd have people parking on the grass and steps," said John Jester, the civilian head of the agency's Washington area office.
"We handle the Pentagon just the way a policeman handles a beat. If we see a violation we go after it. We're just doing our jobs," he said.
According to critics, however, the zealousness has meant upset stomachs in the morning as arriving bureaucrats worry about driving the wrong way down a parking lane, and pedestrians worry about jaywalking -- two offenses that typically result in tickets.
"Sometimes we'll do preventive work, lining up officers to look for jaywalkers whenever that becomes a problem," said Lt. Joseph Oberg, head of the traffic section. "It works, too, because we've never had a traffic fatality here," he added.
Officers also conduct "sweeps" through the parking lots looking for cars without valid monthly parking stickers, according to Lt. Enoch H. Williams, acting commander of the force.
In recent months another menace has developed -- dozens of people who park in the visitors' lots each day and then take the nearby Metrorail system into the District of Columbia, he added.
"We're responsible for security through the entire complex, not just in the parking lots," Williams said. "Parking is the most visible thing we do. But a lot of military people get upset because we're a branch of the General Services Administration, and they can't order us around," he added.
Air Force Col. Jimmy Prettyjohn, three rows of ribbons glimmering on his chest, said yesterday he wasn't upset that he had been ticketed, but that he didn't deserve it. "The officer plain didn't see the sticker on the car," he said. "I pay $10 a month for a sticker, and I wasn't going to pay another $10 for a ticket." The ticket was dismissed when the officer failed to appear in court.
"This is really bull --," said Airman Lowe yesterday after pleading guilty to the three charges against him: having a bald tire, having an expired state registration sticker, and failure to obey an officer -- who had told him four days earlier to change the bald tire.
"I work two jobs and didn't have time to change it.Don't they have anything better to do?" he asked. Lowe was given $20 in fines and a suspended 10-day jail sentence for failure to obey the officer.
Dave Carey joked afterward that the suspended $50 fine he received from Elson for riding his bicycle instead of walking it "was the first moving violation I've ever received. At least the officer was polite about the whole thing," he said.