Guards illegally used disability placards, plates to park in front of detention facility

Advocates for people with disabilities call practice serious safety concern

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SAN ANTONIO – An undercover investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders showed corrections officers at a downtown detention facility used disability placards and disabled veteran license plates belonging to other people to park as close to the building as possible.

The investigation also showed that while guards parked in spots directly in front of the Central Texas Detention Facility, located in the 200 block of South Laredo Street, people on oxygen and people using canes and other mobility devices were forced to park in lots farther west of downtown.

The facility, which holds inmates in federal custody and is run by a private corrections company called the GEO Group, is located between Public Safety Headquarters and the Bexar County Justice Center.

"It's a severe lack of consideration for fellow human beings," Melanie Cawthon, executive director of disABILITYsa, said after reviewing the footage.

Cawthon said her nonprofit tries to educate, advance and engage individuals with disabilities.

"By parking in accessible parking, it protects them from being hit by another vehicle, from having a heart attack because they are not supposed to walk far or even just the exhaustion of having a physical or mobility disability," said Cawthon, who added that accessible parking is a safety issue, not a convenience issue.

One GEO guard, identified through public records as JoAnn Campa, was repeatedly seen parking a Camaro with disabled veteran license plates in metered spots for up to 10 hours per day.

The Camaro was left August 29 in a front-row metered spot as Campa traveled off-site.

She was later dropped off by a sport utility vehicle registered to her husband, and the vehicle followed Campa as she left for the day.

Days later, during an unplanned interview, Campa admitted the plates belong to her husband.

"If we would just have common decency and common courtesy," said Cawthon.

State law allows vehicles with disabled veterans plates to park in accessible spots for an unlimited period as long as the vehicle is driven by the veteran or the veteran is being transported in it.

The use of the plates extends to the spouse of the veteran only after the veteran has passed away and as long as the spouse remains unmarried.

An Austin-based disability advocate said via email that despite this law, Texas courts have traditionally extended the parking privileges to family members.

"There are laws in place, but they are not enforced," said Cawthon.

A second guard, identified through public records as Mario Castillo and coincidentally also driving a late-model Camaro, was captured on camera in August and September repeatedly using a disability placard to park in front of the detention facility.

On days when no metered spots were available at the start of his afternoon shift, Castillo was seen parking in the nearby Bexar County parking garage, then walking without issues while carrying an equipment belt and backpack.

Castillo, when approached for an unplanned interview, admitted the placard belongs to his mother-in-law.

"On those days, I was assisting my mother-in-law," said Castillo, who added that he dropped her off before driving to work.

When asked if it was fair that people with disabilities were forced to park farther away while Castillo took a spot up front, he apologized.

"Courtesy-wise, there's no reason for him to take up an accessible parking spot," said Cawthon.

"Our community needs to work together and solve this issue for our fellow citizens who have disabilities."

"Our company believes that parking laws and regulations should be observed and complied with. The parking spaces in question are public and are not within our company's control or monitoring," GEO Group Executive Vice President Pablo Paez said via email this month.

Paez declined a request for an on-camera interview and did not respond to a follow-up email asking if Campa and Castillo would be disciplined.

Center City Development and Operations Department Director John Jacks, whose department handles parking enforcement, released the following statement:

Our Parking Enforcement Officers do not have the authority to question whether or not an individual is disabled. According to City ordinance, individuals who have been issued a disabled permit, placard or plate by the state may park in City-owned parking facilities or on-street parking meters without paying a fee.

A Bexar County information technology employee was also seen using a disability placard to park in front of the detention facility.

The employee expressed remorse and said he improperly used the placard because of a lack of parking downtown, according to a county spokeswoman.

The employee is now using a park and ride bus service to commute to work, the spokeswoman said.

Cawthon encouraged anyone wanting to raise awareness about accessibility parking issues to download the Parking Mobility app.

The app allows users to report disabled parking abuse.

Cawthon said while Bexar County remains in the data-gathering stage, other communities like Hays County and Travis County have gotten on board with the app and more than 50,000 citations have been issued since the app was launched.

Two bills that would have made it more difficult for drivers to use specialty license plates and accessible parking placards as illegal instruments failed to get passed during the last legislative session.

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.