$87.50 for 3 Minutes: Inside the Hot Market for Videos of Idling Trucks

Source: By Michael Wilson, New York Times • Posted: Monday, March 21, 2022

A New York City clean-air program allows citizens to report idling commercial vehicles in exchange for a cut of the fines. Some drivers respond with fists.

Paul Slapikas pretends to talk on the phone while recording a truck idling in Manhattan.

A white-paneled truck sat motionless and idling in Midtown on a recent morning, its driver wrapped up in his phone and oblivious to what was happening outside.

There in the street, Paul Slapikas was stalking his prey. Wire-thin and 81 years old, Mr. Slapikas stood in front of the truck like a lost tourist, a camera dangling around his neck and a map sticking out of his jacket pocket. He appeared to be deep in conversation on an old flip-phone — big hand gestures, a peek at a watch, a crane of the neck like he’s looking for a friend.

After exactly three minutes and 10 seconds, Mr. Slapikas — a lifelong New Yorker who lives a few miles away in Queens — snapped the phone shut, tapped the screen of his watch and walked away. If everything goes as it should, he just earned $87.50, and maybe more, for those few minutes of time, and the company that owns the truck will receive a fine of at least $350 that it never saw coming. But for now, Mr. Slapikas is off down the block, a bounty hunter jauntily seeking his next target.

“Easy pickings,” said the former marine and retired computer specialist from Woodside.

This is a scene from the city’s benign-sounding but often raucous Citizens Air Complaint Program, a public health campaign that invites — and pays — people to report trucks that are parked and idling for more than three minutes, or one minute if outside a school. Those who report collect 25 percent of any fine against a truck by submitting a video just over 3 minutes in length that shows the engine is running and the name of the company on the door.

The program has vastly increased the number of complaints of idling trucks sent to the city, from just a handful before its creation in 2018 to more than 12,000 last year. Some of those complaints turn menacing when truck drivers react.

“I go out thinking I’m going to get assaulted,” said Ernest Welde, 47, an environmental attorney. “I’ve had my bags stolen by truck drivers. I’ve been physically assaulted. I’ve had to call the police a couple of times.”

Another man, Eric Eisenberg, had a similar experience across town last year. An Amazon driver and two colleagues noticed Mr. Eisenberg pointing his phone’s camera at their idling truck, knocked him to the ground and held him down, according to a lawsuit Mr. Eisenberg filed in January.

“Yeah, it’s like that, papa,” one of the men said, according to the lawsuit.

Idling vehicles in the United States are believed to collectively expel millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year, and researchers have estimated that eliminating excessive idling from personal vehicles alone would have a similar impact to taking 5 million of the country’s 250 million cars off the streets.

Several states have laws against excessive idling, but few have citizen-outsourcing programs like New York City.

The program and the increased interest in filing complaints have brought a new game of cat and mouse to the city’s streets, as citizen reporters prowl in search of idling trucks and drivers, perhaps stung by past fines, are increasingly wary of people with cameras. New levels of stealth have come into play, like Mr. Slapikas’s tourist disguise.

The camera around his neck has no film. The flip phone does not work. They are distractions from what is really going on, which he asked not be explained in detail and thus revealed to the truck drivers — suffice it to say it involves an iPhone that he is not holding in his hands while it records. And lots of pretend calls on the flip phone.

If this all sounds like a lot of trouble for a quarter cut of a $350 fine, consider this: Mr. Slapikas said he pulled in $64,000 in rewards in 2021 for simply paying attention on his daily walks for exercise: “I would expect to get three a day without even looking.”

He is one of about 20 or so busy citizen reporters who collectively submit some 85 percent of the complaints to the city, a data analysis found last year. They count in their number a pediatrician, several attorneys and a retired police detective. The loose group trades tips and stories, calls itself Idling Warriors and files hundreds of complaints per month. The pandemic, and the city’s increased reliance on deliveries, has only brought more work.

The city paid more than $724,000 in bounties last year alone, and $1.1 million since 2019. For its share, the city collected $2.4 million in fines last year, up 24 percent from when the program began in earnest three years ago.

And yet, several citizen reporters said in interviews that creaking bureaucracy, loopholes, waivers and a seeming disinterest in issuing increasing numbers of fines has left untold penalties uncollected.

For every fine it issues, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the program, seems to wave away others for reasons that, to the reporters, seem arbitrary: The name of the company is not legible on the truck door, even though the license plate would reveal the owner. The truck’s engine isn’t clearly audible on the video, even if smoke can be seen coming out of the exhaust pipe.

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Mr. Welde, the attorney, said he filed some 2,000 complaints last year and that most have yet to be processed.

“I’ve made the city probably close to $800,000 in revenue and they’re just leaving it on the table if they don’t get staff to get in there and get reports done,” he said.

A deputy commissioner with the department, Angela Licata, said the system is still evolving and hopefully improving, but that the strict requirements for filing a complaint are necessary to successfully prosecute that claim in court later.

“We also can appreciate that these individuals are spending a lot of time and energy on this,” she said. “We don’t want them to become frustrated.”

She said a staff of 14 handles the steady tide of complaints where, before the program, it was one person’s occasional task.

Excessive idling has been illegal since the 1970s, and the city unveiled a renewed anti-idling program in 2020 with the kitschy endorsement of, yes, Billy Idol, the spiky-haired rock star of “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” fame. “Billy Never Idles,” went the tagline.

By then, the citizen reporting program had been quietly up and running for over a year. Mr. Welde, the environmental lawyer, remembers one dramatic confrontation earlier in his reporting. He was filming a truck — “United Refrigeration,” he said — and the driver noticed and shut it off, but when Mr. Welde began to walk away, he turned it back on. Mr. Welde resumed filming.

“He went from zero to 100 and started taking his shirt off and his watch and started chasing me,” he said. “I ran.”

Mr. Welde said he was passionate about improving the air quality before the reward program, but called it a great incentive. “The money, it’s awesome,” he said. If his unprocessed complaints from last year lead to fines, he expects to earn $200,000 to $225,000, he said.

Making the video is the easy part of the complaint. “Now the work starts,” Mr. Slapikas said. Videos and photos must be compressed and time-stamped and accompanied by screen shots of the identifying information. Originally, a notary’s signature was required, but today, a sworn statement from the reporter is sufficient.

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There is more work: It is the responsibility of the citizen reporters, after filing their complaints, to track them through the system of summonses and court hearings. Many are surprised to learn that it is also their responsibility to determine whether a truck is a repeat offender, and therefore liable for a larger fine — and the reporter a larger bounty. The reporters said they spend hours combing through open data records to see if trucks have been cited before — and wonder why the city doesn’t do this in the first place.

Ms. Licata said the department is looking into identifying repeat offenders itself, and possibly raising their fines.

The reporters are also responsible for requesting their rewards months later, once they have learned that a fine was paid. The city does not pay the reporters automatically.

The various hurdles are perhaps why the number of people who regularly deal with them is only about 20. One Manhattan attorney who has filed many complaints said he believes most people who file just one give up.

The thrill of the hunt remains. “Your adrenaline gets so pumped up because you could anytime get assaulted by this person,” Mr. Welde said. “I have a file with just assaults on my computer.”

Still, he tells his friends about the program. “Everyone I say this to is like, ‘That’s awesome, I want to do it,’ and no one does it,” he said. Likewise, Mr. Slapikas said his circle showed little interest: “They don’t have the motivation to do it themselves — it’s a full-time job.”

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In Midtown, Mr. Slapikas approached an idling truck as if it were a skittish animal, bending to place his palm to the exhaust pipe and confirm its engine was running.

“They say the streets are paved with gold,” he said. He started his video, capturing the license plate, and slowly made his way to the front so he could record the engine noise. He began speaking into his prop phone; had someone passed by, they could have heard him reciting Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent …”

In one truck that Mr. Slapikas recorded sat a driver named Jason Rodriguez. Had he noticed? “Never,” he said moments later, after Mr. Slapikas had left. He turned off his engine. “Thanks for the heads up,” he said, adding that his boss has warned about the complaint program in the past. “He said it ain’t fair.”