In 2017, the Pickerington Police Department issued 320 citations to people who illegally parked in spaces reserved for people with disabilities.

It was a marked enforcement increase, after the department issued just 19 citations in 2016 and 14 in 2015.

Between Jan. 1 and March 20 of this year, police issued 92 handicapped parking citations.

According to Pickerington Police Cmdr. Greg Annis, the figures reflect a conscious effort by his agency and local business owners to provide accommodations to people with disabilities, as well as to penalize those who unlawfully take advantage of those options.

He said several businesses complained in late 2016 that people were using the spaces improperly.

That prompted an outreach effort by the police department to make sure commercial properties' handicapped-parking spaces were designated with signs and surface markings in compliance with state law.

"If those spaces are not in compliance with state codes, we cannot legally cite the offender," Annis said.

"The city code enforcement officer worked with some of the companies that owned these (shopping) centers in order to bring their spaces into compliance with state code."

Once businesses shored up their lots, officers went to work.

Annis said the department didn't devote any more officers to parking enforcement, but they were told to be vigilant of infractions during patrol shifts.

"We told officers, 'Let's really start cracking down on this,' " Annis said. "The police department cannot stress enough the importance of not parking in a handicapped space unless there is a legitimate and legal need for it.

" 'I just parked here for a minute to get something' doesn't cut it," Annis said.

"I would ask the violators, 'How would you feel if your mother, father, grandparent or friends, who are handicapped or elderly, were not able to park their car merely because someone else didn't want to walk the extra distance or was going to park there for a short time?' "

Mayor Lee Gray hailed the "crackdown" during the Pickerington Area Chamber of Commerce's State of the City address March 15.

He said some offenders were found to be using handicapped-parking placards even though they had no disability.

"And we've gotten an unbelievable amount of feedback of how much the people who do use the handicapped stickers and need them appreciate that," Gray said.

The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles requires drivers to submit a certificate of eligibility from a physician or chiropractor to receive disability license plates.

The certificate must confirm the driver has a condition that limits or impairs the ability to walk, has a vehicle they own or lease that is altered to accommodate a disabled individual or operates a bus or service that transports disabled individuals.

Handicapped-parking violators can face fines of up to $500 if a space is properly identified as restricted. Annis said citations are issued to those who park in the spaces without a displayed placard and to people who used placards that were registered to someone else.

"There was even a case of a man who used his handicapped daughter's placard to park at Marcus Theater," Annis said. "The daughter, whom the placard was registered to, was not even with him at the time.

"(Officers) have found some that were expired by more than two years," he said. "They found a couple that were registered to someone who was deceased."

Not all offenders were blatant violators.

Annis acknowledged that 195 of the 320 violations in 2017 were dismissed because those cited proved they had a legal need for handicapped parking but hadn't renewed their placards or that they didn't have it visibly displayed.

"Obviously, these are people we do not wish to punish," he said. "However, 88 of those violators went to court and paid their fines. Six other cases are still pending in court."

Of the 92 citations issued in 2018, 34 have been dismissed, 25 have been paid and 33 cases are pending, Annis said.

"The department has received numerous compliments for our aggressive enforcement of these types of violations," Annis said.