By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
he manner in which law enforcement agencies approach their traffic safety responsibilities varies widely. Although there are many reasons that one agency has a stellar program while a neighboring department ignores its traffic safety role, the single most significant difference can be summed up in one word: commitment.
The bottom line in traffic safety is saving lives—and the reality is that lives are saved one stop at a time. Day after day, night after night, dedicated officers save lives by working to detect impaired drivers, to reduce speed violations, and to educate the public about seat belt use.
Clearly, many agencies—as demonstrated through the many submissions to the IACP’s National Law Enforcement Challenge—are committed to making a difference in traffic safety in their communities. Those agencies are reducing death and injury rates from crashes and are enjoying the benefits of community support for their work to improve public safety.
In a presentation at the 115th Annual IACP Conference in San Diego, New Hampshire’s assistant commissioner of safety and long-time chair of the IACP’s Highway Safety Committee Earl Sweeney noted that a traffic stop is generally the first solo act of a young patrol officer. The task, he notes, requires only a few tools: enough knowledge of the law to recognize a violation, a ticket book, and the “obligatory Cross pen.”
The Complete Traffic Stop
Making a good, complete traffic stop requires a more well-rounded skill set than many officers have been trained or encouraged to possess. The stop presents an opportunity to increase public safety, improve the motorist’s view of the agency, and affect crime. A properly completed traffic stop can change a driver’s attitude or behavior for the long term, increasing the safety of every roadway user.
Officers can command respect for themselves and the uniform through the professional actions they take at the roadside. The only contact most adults will ever have with a police officer will be in the setting of traffic stops, meaning that this brief contact can have lasting implications on how violators view all law enforcement officers.
In addition to increasing safety and improving public attitudes, the simple traffic stop is also a powerful tool in an agency’s crime-fighting arsenal. “You never know who you might encounter during a stop for a minor traffic violation,” Chief Ronal Serpas of the Metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee, Police Department said after an indicted child rapist was nabbed in his jurisdiction on a stop earlier this year.1
Highly visible traffic enforcement has been proven to reduce crime rates and improve public safety. Data collected during numerous traffic safety campaigns demonstrate the ability of traffic enforcement to apprehend fugitives, detect stolen vehicles, interdict drug trafficking, and get illegal weapons off the street.
For an example, consider the number of individuals wanted for murder that have been arrested through a good traffic stop. The Nebraska State Patrol found an Ohio murder suspect on a traffic stop for an improper turn last year.2 San Francisco Police found a murder suspect from Sacramento after an unsafe left turn.3 The examples of alert police work on simple traffic stops—from major metropolitan and remote rural areas—are many.
Simple traffic stops also affect homeland security and ongoing investigations. One of the best-known traffic stops of all time occurred when Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Charlie Hangar (now the sheriff of Noble County, Oklahoma) stopped Timothy McVeigh for failure to display license tags; in doing so, he captured a co-conspirator in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
A Lost Art
Chairman Sweeney observed that traffic enforcement, a basic part of the law enforcement mission, has become a lost art in some agencies. “Some departments have patrol officers that haven’t made a DUI arrest in six months or more,” Sweeney said. “Some departments send radar units out day after day and they return without a single ticket.”
Fortunately, agencies have resources to which they can turn to reverse this trend. The positive effect of grant funds directed from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration through state highway safety offices to local law enforcement agencies cannot be disputed. Agencies have been able to implement programs, expand projects, or address problems within their communities with enforcement overtime funds. The impact on seat belt nonuse, alcohol involvement in crashes, and other targeted issues has been phenomenal. For agencies committed to traffic safety in their communities, these grants have served to augment their traffic safety enforcement and education presence. For other agencies, these grants have been the genesis of a well-rounded traffic safety program.
The downside of these grant programs is that some agencies are aggressive with their enforcement only when they have outside funds, confusing the public they serve about what is important to them. On the other hand, agencies committed to increasing traffic safety budget for this priority, using grant funds to supplement that work.
Even agencies with sufficient personnel and funding to create a dedicated traffic unit still sometimes miss the boat. In most agencies, the traffic unit works creatively to educate the public, analyze crash causes, and conduct proactive enforcement. Unfortunately, some agencies staff these units with well-trained and highly skilled “accident investigators” whose responsibilities end with writing crash reports. These units fail to look at their finished reports in a meaningful way to identify the causes of crashes and prevent similar events through enforcement, public education, or improved roadway engineering.
The commitment to save lives leads to creative, effective, and community-supported traffic safety programs. Next month, this column will provide some strategies agencies can use to meet the challenge of this vital commitment.■
1Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, “Traffic Stop Leads to Arrest of Suspected Child Rapist,” press release, January 5, 2009, http://www.police.nashville.org/news/media/2009/01/05c.htm (accessed February 5, 2009).
2Nebraska State Patrol, “Traffic Stop Leads to Arrest of Ohio Murder Suspect,” press release, September 9, 2008, http://www.nsp.state.ne.us/findfile.asp?id=2189 (accessed February 6, 2009).
3“Suspect in Sacramento Murder Arrested in SF,” KTVU.com, July 19, 2008, http://www.ktvu.com/news/16932294/detail.html (accessed February 6, 2009).