It was just after noon on a recent weekday, the parking lots at the Annapolis Westfield Mall were already full, and a woman in a dark sedan weaved through the swelling traffic, looking for a place to park.
Jessica Lawrence, a Glen Burnie resident, saw what she was looking for — a single, empty handicapped space near the front entrance to Sears.
She pulled in, killed the engine and breathed an apparent sigh of relief.
Then Cpl. Mark Camm appeared on the scene.
"May I see your ID?" he asked.
Camm, a 25-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, is the lead officer on Operation HIDE, a countywide mission aimed at nabbing those who use handicapped parking spaces illegally.
Lawrence, it turned out, had the required blue-and-white handicapped placard on hand. Problem was, it belonged to her mother, who was inside the mall shopping. Lawrence said she was there to give her a ride home.
Camm jotted out a citation that could cost her $140 in fines and add 12 points to her driver's license.
"It's not that we're trying to trap anybody. We're trying to make sure these spaces are open for the people who really need them," he said, returning to his unmarked car for two more hours of surveillance.
The brainchild of Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, Operation HIDE (it stands for Handicapped ID Enforcement) targets the able-bodied who use state-issued placards belonging to others, display the placards but lack the wallet-size ID they're required to have on hand, or pull into the spaces with no permit at all (a county violation that can cost $500).
Officers on the beat say they get every reaction in the book, from sincere apologies to emotional, blame-shifting rants. They often hear that violators didn't understand the rules, are only there to pick up a handicapped person inside the mall (usually their mother) or were sure their expired placard was up to date.
One rationalization, the program's officers say, borders on the epidemic: "I'm only here for a minute."
"Well, what if a handicapped individual only has a minute?" asks Leopold, who started the momentum for the operation in 2007 when he backed a bill that stiffened penalties for violations, boosting the top fine for county offenses from $50 to $500.
The Republican executive says he has been an advocate for the disabled since President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the National Council on Disability, a federal agency, in 1991.
"I just took to it," Leopold says. "It's not something everyone thinks about, but it's important."
Camm's motivation runs deeper. His late mother, who suffered complications from emphysema, had trouble walking during her later years, and she often called her son at the station to report that someone had taken her reserved space in the parking lot of her Annapolis apartment complex.
"That kind of thing gets you emotional," says Camm, traffic enforcement coordinator for the county's Southern District, with a tight smile. "I mean, everyone loves their mother."
Such experiences made Camm a natural to shepherd Operation HIDE, which started out as Operation Access in 2007.
At that time, it covered only the most flagrant of violations: the kind in which drivers with no handicapped license tag or portable handicapped placard simply pull into a handicapped space and use it.
In January of last year, the force expanded its efforts to include the subtler, harder-to-detect offense: use by drivers of someone else's portable placard, renaming the action Operation HIDE. Camm and Lt. Ross Passman, executive officer for the Southern District, wrote the guidelines and act as overseers.
For one week each quarter, each of Anne Arundel's four police districts dedicates extra manpower to enforcing the handicapped laws. The one in which Lawrence got a citation was the final "wave week" for 2011.
Camm and Passman concede they can't catch everyone, but statistics suggest they're having an effect. Officers issued 765 of the $500 citations in 2010 and have written 588 so far this year, with the holiday season — a time when parking seekers are especially prone to taking desperate measures — still to come.
It's harder, Passman says, to track state citations, but those, too, appear to have decreased.
"We're encouraged. If the numbers are down, it means we're making an impact," he says, adding that officers will continue to target the violations year round, this year and next, whether it's a "wave week" or not.
As word of mouth about the operation has grown countywide, so has the officers' stockpile of anecdotes.
Parking is a volatile issue under the best of conditions, they say, handicapped parking even more so, and in its own way, Operation HIDE offers a window onto the foibles of the psyche.
Camm likes to target malls and other heavily trafficked shopping areas — on Fridays if possible — because, he says, people tend to be in a hurry as the weekend draws near. Rainy days are also productive, as people are less patient with walking long distances. (He stores baggies in his car to make sure his citations stay dry.)
He keeps an impressively low profile, but at times doesn't even have to do that.
"Some people are so confident they won't get caught that they'll [violate] right in front of a marked car," says Camm, who proceeds to relate some of his recent experiences.
Not long ago, a Cadillac with a legal handicapped placard pulled into one of the choice spaces. Out stepped a healthy-looking 17-year-old boy — who promptly got out and ran into the mall.
Camm ran after him.
"The permit was his grandfather's," he says. "He claimed he didn't realize he wasn't allowed to use it."
According to state law, the licensed individual must be in the car whenever it's being driven. Camm busted him.
Then there was the woman who parked in a handicapped space one weekday lunch hour, a legal placard in place, but couldn't produce the ID card to go with it.
The placard belonged to her mother, the woman said, and her mother was somewhere in the mall, waiting to be picked up.
Camm was skeptical. He waited until the woman came back out — unaccompanied. He followed her off-site, pulled her over on Bestgate Road and asked where her mother was.
"Someone else came along and picked her up," the woman said.
He wrote her the maximum ticket.
"She appeared to be dealing in falsehoods," Camm says.
The corporal is so devoted to the cause he'll even write citations off-duty. Last winter, he parked in the lot at the gym where he works out and saw a pricey SUV filling a handicapped space — sans tags. He left a citation on the windshield.
Later, he heard the owner screaming at the staff inside, claiming that snow covered the handicapped icon on the pavement.
"I went back later and checked," Camm says. "There was a sign on a post. A lot of people don't seem to realize [disabled] people use gyms for rehab."
Some are thankful for his services. As Camm eyed the bank of spaces in front of Sears, a woman pulled in, struggled to get out of her SUV, and leaned on a cane.
Julie Hawkins of Annapolis, who has had six back surgeries, was in full compliance.
She said she has often had to call police to deal with people who were illegally parked. One woman without a tag even took up two spaces, she said, and shopped for several hours.
"When she came out, she even had an attitude about it," Hawkins said with a shake of the head. "It's not uncommon at all. Sad but true."
She told Camm to keep up the good work.
Lawrence, meanwhile, was conceding little. She insisted she was only there to pick up her disabled mother, whom she described as a military veteran and community leader.
Politely defiant, she jabbed a series of numbers into her cell phone, and in a few minutes, her mother — owner of the handicapped placard — emerged.
Evelyn Gray-Mason, 59, also of Glen Burnie, said she has lupus, which qualifies her for handicapped status, even though at times, like today, she can walk without difficulty.
She mentioned that she was slated to receive a humanitarian award at an NAACP banquet that very evening.
Still, how had she gotten to the mall? Mother and daughter said another driver had dropped her off that morning. Politely announcing they'd fight the citation in court, they drove away.
The leader of Operation HIDE watched them go.
"That was entertaining," Camm said. "I guess that could be the truth. Only they know for sure. At least they were nice about it."