Blind Justice

Kent Parker’s deli may be the worst place in Hamilton County to commit a crime. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

Upon entering the Hamilton County Courthouse, you join one of two curling lines composed of lawyers, irritated people paying tickets, and more than a few folks facing criminal charges. No one talks. Most look annoyed as they file one by one through metal detectors. It’s the emotional opposite of making it into an exclusive nightclub; few really want to be on this list. Once granted entry, people scatter, and some break off from the crowd to stop at Kent Parker’s KP Courthouse Deli—for a snack, some gum, the ATM. Inside, Parker, 52, is sporting shades and comfortable work attire: slacks and a short-sleeved, collared shirt.

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Illustration By Peter Ryan

We head to his back room to chat near the safe, alongside shelves stacked with canned soup and condiments. It’s difficult to know how many eyes are on us in the small, well-lit shop. Right outside the deli, four sheriff’s deputies observe visitors as they pass through metal detectors. Police amble back and forth along the main corridor. Cops and judges frequent the deli, greeting Parker by name. There’s a security camera on the ceiling, aimed in our direction, another pointing over the shoulder of his assistant manager at the till, and still more cameras positioned throughout the shop, gathering footage of the potato chip display, the hotdogs sputtering on the roller, the breakfast sandwiches being made to order. Digital footage of all our movements is being beamed up to Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputies.

Parker nods his head in the direction of a camera. If we waved at it, we’d be waving at a deputy upstairs who screens the footage. “He could be watching it right now or an hour from now, tonight, tomorrow,” Parker tells me. It’s both a soft irony and a necessity that so much visual information is constantly being gathered in the KP Deli.

“They think I’m easy because I’m blind, but no, I can see things with my senses,” he says. Parker lost his sight in 1993 as a complication of diabetes. “I live in complete blackness,” he says. But he’s also developed a sensitivity to shiftiness, the nervous pattern of voice a person takes on when trying to swindle him. Since Parker took over the deli 16 years ago, there have been dozens of arrests for shoplifting and garden variety scamming.

There was the registered sex offender, showing up to complete community service, who gave Parker a $1 bill but said it was a five and pocketed the difference. He was arrested inside the courthouse. Another man was arrested for stealing fruit pies, Combos, drinks, and more than a dozen Slim Jims. A man and his pregnant girlfriend came in rounds, each handing over $1 bills and saying they were 20s. Both were nabbed. Another woman set to appear in court for shoplifting more than $1,000 in merchandise from Victoria’s Secret stole more than a dozen items from KP Courthouse Deli. And then there was the employee who skipped ringing up customers and pocketed the cash, and another employee who stole food. They were both duly arrested.

And charged with felonies. Because robbing a disabled person like Parker bumps a misdemeanor up to a fifth degree felony. People have been given prison sentences for trying to steal a pocketful of snacks. KP Courthouse Deli may just be the stupidest place in all of Hamilton County to try to commit a petty crime.

When I approach four deputies monitoring the lines snaking through the metal detectors to ask about the deli thefts and if stealing here is the height of criminal idiocy, they bust up laughing. As two of them step away, voices chiming into their earpieces, a third officer tells me with a cocked eyebrow, “Don’t underestimate a criminal. That’s why they get caught.”

Since the unfortunate incidents with the now ex-employees, Parker runs background checks on his staff and tends to hire people he knows personally, or who are connected in some way with other courthouse folks. One young woman out front making sandwiches is a bailiff’s daughter. Up until almost five years ago, Parker’s father, who will be 87 this year, helped out with deliveries.

It’s the outsiders who keep him especially vigilant. “I have criminals coming into this building all the time,” says Parker. “Some will shoplift, but they’ve always been caught. They’re on camera doing it. It doesn’t make any sense why people would want to do that, but I’ve arrested many, many, many people.” There’s a pretty even split in the variety of thieves; about half shoplift and the others try to scam him for change. “They see a blind man and think, I can take advantage of this. No, you can’t.”

Parker doesn’t want to get too specific, but there’s a feeling he gets when a customer sounds nervous handing him a $1 bill and claims it’s a 20. Parker hands over change for a 20, and as soon as the customer clears out, holds the bill up to his staff and asks “What is this?”

If it’s a single: “Boom. I’m calling the police and they’re arrested, usually before they leave the courthouse,” he says.

Sometimes, police upstairs watching his security feed call down to Parker and ask, “What kind of bill did that person give you?” Parker is so diligent about where he places bills in his till, it’s easy to tell if something is awry. If the customer claimed it was larger currency, a screenshot of the swindler is lifted from the security feed and sent to all the phones of the deputies in the building. Sometimes the officers know right where to look, because the culprit has a court appearance.

When it comes time for trial, held right here in the Hamilton County Courthouse, Parker’s confidence is high. If he enters the courtroom, odds are he knows the judge and the bailiff, having served them coffee or lunch or Combos for years. Then there’s the unavoidable fact, which he never gets tired of mentioning, that the accused has been caught on camera.

“So nobody’s ever wanted or had any way to fight it,” he says. “I’ve never lost a court case.”

Still, the history of thefts can wear on a person, make you a little disillusioned with humanity. Parker’s assistant manager of 13 years, Becky Pate, a busy, efficient woman with blonde hair swept into a ponytail, tells me that working at KP Courthouse Deli has made her more skeptical of people. (She’s often the one who checks large bills for Parker.) When she first started and people around the courthouse would ask to bum a cigarette, quarters, dimes, whatever, she constantly gave from her own pockets. “Now, no,” she says. “No, I’m not doing it anymore.” Later she adds, “I never felt that way before.”

I ask Parker what helps him trust people, after all the thefts and dishonesty. He tells me simply, “When I know them.”

Given the number of times Parker has been robbed or cheated—and the attendant news coverage has made the obvious play on his disability in the vein of “They robbed him blind!”—one might assume that working in food service or retail without being able to see is inherently problematic. Parker, a west side native, was trained through the state’s Business Enterprise Program (BEP), run through Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD), which prepares people who are legally blind for jobs managing and operating cafeterias, convenience stores, snack bars, and vending machines in government buildings, at roadside stops, and in state universities and colleges. There are over 120 BEP enterprises in Ohio, including the cafeteria at the John Weld Peck Federal Building. BEP managers make on average $41,000 per year based on profits accrued by their business. It’s an effort to provide businesses and jobs for people who are blind, but also create a public-facing role that demonstrates how capable and competent blind business owners can be.

Do all BEP managers have as many run-ins with crooks and criminals? Beth Gianforcaro, from OOD’s office of communications, notes that the agency is unaware of similar crimes at other sites, although “operators are not required to report incidents to OOD that they are handling through their local law enforcement.” Still, OOD is familiar enough with the history of thefts and scams at KP Courthouse Deli that the program upgraded Parker’s security equipment back in August. Parker is a veteran of the restaurant industry and has been managing restaurants—Skyline, Arby’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken among them—for 30 years. Before taking over KP Courthouse Deli, he ran a restaurant through BEP at the Dalton Avenue postal station processing center. Were there challenges with shoplifters and cheats before he lost his sight? “You run into it anywhere and everywhere,” he says. While the alleged criminal tendencies of some of his clientele increase the likelihood of being scammed, being in the Courthouse has its perks. “I don’t have to worry in here—here’s my safe,” he says, gesturing to its location in the back. “You have to go through metal detectors to get in the building, so I don’t have to worry about somebody coming in with a gun and holding me up.”

For Parker, the deli has meant an opportunity to stay active in an industry he knows well. When he first went blind, he recalls, “I thought as most people would: It’s the end of the world. Where will I be? Standing out on a corner with a tin cup in my hand?” But he soon learned how to adapt, how to live his life and to work. Those skills made it “very much easier to not be depressed.”

Today, Parker is the picture of competence. There’s a rush at the counter, and he heads out to man the cash register. A judge at the courthouse greets him by name and orders a hot chocolate. Parker punches the price into the register and tells her what she owes him as the register lights up with the same figure. Another customer comes through with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, another with jelly, three pieces of toast, and bacon. Parker tabs it all up on the register. He can’t see the tally it displays, but he totals it up in his head. It always matches.

“Hi, Kent,” says a uniformed officer as he orders a coffee.

Out by the cash register, with all the regulars greeting Parker, it is almost possible to forget how much surveillance we are under. You also start to note a rhythm. Those who work at the Courthouse and know Parker come up, say hi (to let him know they’re there), tell him their order, and reach across and place their money in his open hand. For all the stories about foolish criminals stealing from a blind man inside a courthouse packed with cops, his deli is mostly just like any other corner shop: A place playing a small part in keeping other people’s days going. Parker is the familiar face that bookends busy days and brightens coffee breaks.

Those who aren’t regulars stand quietly waiting for him to acknowledge them. Parker calls “Is there someone I can help?” and when they respond, he says, “Tell me what you have, and I’ll ring you up.” He’s so natural and fast at the register that many don’t seem to notice he can’t see them until he gives them their total, and they hold their cash in midair waiting for him to grab it.

One young mother is bustling through with hotdogs, drinks, and chips for herself and her son. When Parker rings her up, she too thrusts out cash but Parker doesn’t reach for it, doesn’t know she is holding it out. There’s a brief flicker of recognition as her eyes dart from her outstretched money, to Parker’s sunglasses, his open hand near the register. Now she understands and puts her cash in his hand. He makes change fast, often has it ready, anticipating that most people pay in the denomination closest to the total.

As the mother tucks her change into her wallet, her son then asks for a mini-York Peppermint Patty. They are 15 cents. She only has six cents in loose change and tells her little boy before turning to leave, “Come on. Put that back.”

Of course he puts it back. Who would steal something like that in a place like this?

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