Image: NYC police officer
Yana Paskova  /  Getty Images file
There have been 50 attacks on New York City traffic officers so far this year, compared with 60 in all of last 2007. Under a new law, attacking a traffic officer is a felony with a maximum sentence of seven years.
updated 7/25/2008 5:26:01 PM ET 2008-07-25T21:26:01

It would be an understatement to say traffic agents aren't well-liked on the congested streets of New York.

While they patrol for parking violations and write traffic tickets, they are routinely spit on and yelled at by angry car owners or passers-by, and, at least once, even cracked on the back of the head with a hammer.

But irate residents may soon think twice about pummeling an officer over a parking ticket, because assaulting a traffic agent is now a felony. The law, which took effect this week, upgrades an attack on an agent from a misdemeanor to a felony that calls for a maximum sentence of seven years.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a news conference that the law sends a clear message: "If you touch a traffic enforcement agent, you go to jail."

50 attacks so far this year
There have been about 50 attacks on traffic agents so far this year, compared with 60 in all of 2007. Agents themselves concede that their job annoys people, but they are shocked by how far drivers take it.

"A New York citizen attacking us because of a ticket is totally wrong. It's just a ticket, for God's sake," said James Huntley, president of the union representing the city's traffic agents. "If you're denied a mortgage, you don't go back in and slap someone."

In most cities, it is already a felony to assault a traffic agent because ticketing is handled by police officers. But because New York is so big and has so much traffic, it has long had a special unit to deal with traffic, and its members lacked felony protection.

The job was created in the early 1960s to free up police to work more serious crimes. The city now has about 2,800 traffic enforcement agents, who are part of the New York Police Department but are civilians and do not carry weapons. They must pass 12 weeks of training before they are assigned posts.

A hammer to the head
In their blue uniforms, traffic agents patrol streets, write parking tickets and direct traffic. The city received nearly $600 million in revenue in the latest budget year from tickets — many of which cost more than $100.

"The only way you get a ticket is because you're doing something wrong," Huntley said. "They hire us to enforce the laws. People go to a DMV and get a license, and the first thing they do is read about the parking and driving laws."

Huntley said that one agent a few years ago was smacked in the back of the head with a hammer. Female agents have been punched in the face. A 60-year-old female agent, Huntley said, was shoved to the ground by a man angry about a ticket, and her kneecap shattered on the street curb. Huntley himself was hit by both a bicycle and a truck while directing traffic on 34th Street.

"There's protection behind us now; it will make our jobs and lives easier," Huntley said. "It will make people think twice before they lose it."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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