By William C. Kilpatrick, Chief of Police, Golden, Colorado; and Glenn Moore, Community Resource Officer, Golden Police Department
he city of Golden, Colorado, is a historic destination founded in 1859 and located just 14 miles west of Denver. Downtown Golden attracts a diverse group of visitors and residents, many of whom arrive driving customized vehicles with exhaust systems that are louder than the vehicles’ original equipment. The drivers of these vehicles tend to congregate at local bars and other venues in groups, which results in significant noise. The public outcry over this vehicle noise grew in intensity to a point that mandated police intervention.
To address this problem, the Golden Police Department (GPD) first sought insight from surrounding law enforcement agencies. Most of the methods and models other agencies used were based solely on enforcement of decibel thresholds. Decibel-based enforcement models necessarily include the costs and time required to certify officers to use sound meters as well as the cost of the equipment. Decibel-based enforcement models are often anchored in environmental laws with significant fines. These methods afforded the owners of customized vehicles an opportunity to have their fine waived if they changed their exhaust systems to those that emit acceptable levels of sound. However, such a model does not prevent owners from changing their exhaust systems back after inspection, although it may levy additional consequences for doing so. Such an enforcement model still relies on the expenditure and costs of enforcement and engages a lengthy process in the courts.
The GPD initially responded to the noise complaints by adopting a model similar to the one used at the time by the Colorado Springs Police Department. This model was based on an existing Colorado law prohibiting the use of “illegal mufflers,” phrasing that eliminated the need for decibel readings. When an officer’s attention was drawn to an intentional or offensive level of noise created by a vehicle, that vehicle was said to be suspected of having an illegal muffler, and the officer initiated a traffic stop. However, this enforcement model resulted only in a limited amount of correction, and complaints about the noise continued. Public concern continued to grow and was increasingly expressed not just by citizens, merchants, and visitors to Golden but by traffic enforcement officers as well.
Analyzing the Problem
The GPD conducted a search for all methods and models used by law enforcement agencies to address this prevalent problem. All of the models available to the department were mostly reactive in design. Some of these enforcement models did reach out proactively to shops that installed illegal mufflers, but the focus remained on enforcement measures and an expressed intent to pursue additional laws to prohibit purchase or installation. During the initial research to find an effective model for Golden, the GPD found that the law enforcement agencies that were actively battling this problem were also searching for better methods to get it under control.
In analyzing the problem, the department included three areas of police service provisions: education, engineering, and enforcement. The model the GPD developed used a hierarchical premise that stated enforcement should fall last within the list of resources used to address the problem-solving process. It quickly became apparent that the department had to do a better job in the areas of education and engineering to find an effective solution to the problem. The department started the problem-solving process by examining how to provide informational “education” to the offending population. Department leadership recognized that the target population needed to understand the impact of the noise it generated within the community but also determined that this factor would not be readily received if shared merely through enforcement. This segment of the population would have to be educated by its peers. The message would have to be shared within the places they frequented, the “biker bars” and custom vehicle events. In addition to local bars, after-market product providers would need to embrace the idea and provide information and education on the impact illegal mufflers have on the communities through which their owners ride and drive. And, most importantly, the disseminated information had to be embraced and shared by the target group itself.
The second part of the effort, engineering, was also integral in finding a solution to the noise problem. Engineering solutions were examined that would serve to reduce the impact and harm caused by excessive exhaust noise. Briefly explored during this process was the use of sound-absorbing panels in high-density areas where hard surfaces reflected noise. This recourse was left open to the community to approve so that it could take ownership in the effort to improve the environment and reduce the impact of noise. The ideal engineering solution for the situation, however, was to replace illegal exhaust system components with ones that are in compliance with the vehicle manufacturers’ original specifications and are controlled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The analytical process for this problem had to focus on qualitative as opposed to quantitative measures, as vehicle noise is transitory in nature: a vehicle can blare past a person and be gone in mere moments. People who feel violated by fleeting noise do not call police because the vehicle is long gone by the time officers can respond. The fact that one noisy vehicle has a fleeting effect, however, does not trivialize the annoyance local residents feel or the significant negative impact on them and their community. This brief annoyance has an aggregate negative impact on the quality of life in the affected area when large numbers of such vehicles are involved.
Excessive vehicle noise also has the potential to be disastrous to the tourism industry, on which the local economy heavily relies, if Golden should develop a reputation for allowing it.
Another factor discovered during the analysis phase was that people might be reluctant to report noisy vehicles out of fear of retaliation. However, this did not prevent community members from expressing their frustration over the aggregate impact of noise incidents to Golden city council members. Noise became a prominent topic of interest because it was a quality-of-life issue that people believed threatened their right to enjoy public peace within their community.
Outreach to the Target Population
The first step in realizing the community’s expressed desire to reduce noise was to identify the reasons that so many vehicles with modified exhaust systems were coming into Golden. Sustainable behavioral “cultural” change could not be effected without engaging the population that was causing the problem. The GPD identified three local restaurants/bars that are seen by residents as “biker bars” as well as a monthly local custom vehicle cruise event that caters specifically to hundreds of patrons bringing their vehicles with illegal or modified exhaust systems into town.
To minimize the impression that the police were the only ones concerned with the noise generated by these bars and events, the GPD first went to the owners and hosts of the bars and events, respectively, that were attracting custom vehicles. Initially, their response was one of resistance: they demanded to see statistics of complaints received before they would acknowledge that a problem existed. However, as soon as the department conveyed that it was interested only in creating a shared value for public peace within the community and that it wanted to share how patrons could avoid being cited for noise violations, owners and hosts quickly agreed to participate in the partnership.
In a bar, an officer shared this cooperative idea with a group of bikers. Shortly after the group went to the patio to chat about sharing the public peace value, two motorcycles with customized exhausts rode by with almost perfectly orchestrated timing. One was riding absolutely “rapped out” in a low gear, forcing the conversation to stop due to the bike’s loudness. The amazing part of this intrusion was that the bikers with whom the officer was conversing responded by exclaiming, “Now he needs a ticket!” They added that people who ride in that manner are “ruining the ride for the rest of us.” By contrast, the second motorcyclist, also riding a motorcycle with a customized exhaust, was in high gear with “low rev,” and the volume did not interrupt the conversation. The officer was quick to point out that the second motorcyclist was a great example of riding in a “community-friendly” fashion.
Establishment of the Partnership
The process of building the public peace value within the Golden community began what is now called “‘Silence-is-Golden’: Ride & Drive Community-Friendly Partnership.” Each community partner provided unique suggestions in the collective creation of the GPD’s problem-solving model program.
One partner suggested that the department write an article for a well-known motorcycling newspaper to share its positive, community-based model. That newspaper had recently printed an article refuting an enforcement-based model from another police department. Another project partner, a bar owner, asked if the GPD could send its motorcycle officers to the large motorcycle events to help break down the us-versus-them mentality that had developed between bike enthusiasts and police.
A second owner and partner asked, half jokingly, “Can you teach us how to get out of tickets?” This last question spurred the creation of the GPD’s educational session titled “Ticket Avoidance Motor-vehicle Exhaust Informational Training,” or “T.A.M.E. I.T.,” which seemed to fit the situation appropriately. A comment made by a motorcyclist was also incorporated as a catchphrase into the partnership materials: “Don’t ruin the ride for the rest of us.”
The “Silence-is-Golden” partnership promotes the value of public peace within the Golden community. The most surprising aspect of this initial cooperative partnership effort was that not one of the businesses or event hosts declined to enter into it. In fact, each of the partners pursued it more eagerly than perhaps even the GPD had itself done through proposing it.
To share the value embodied in “Riding & Driving Community-Friendly,” the project developed an iconic brand for the partnership, with a logo of a peaceful blue sound wave entering a shared public ear. Each of the three community businesses and the cruise event committed to this cooperative partnership and agreed to have their own logos emblazoned alongside the logo of the GPD. The “Silence-is-Golden” logo was printed on the surface of large recycled street signs that were then presented to the businesses and the event host, who then posted the signs within their businesses, near parking areas, and at their special events. The project overview and information on “How to Avoid a Ticket in Golden” were printed on pamphlets, posters, and drink coasters that were then displayed and distributed in community bars and provided to participants in customized motoring special events.
In addition, the GPD has the option of sending a courtesy letter to registered owners of vehicles observed parked and unattended in Golden with what appear to be illegal mufflers. These letters are sent to express appreciation for the patronage of the vehicle operators but also to inform them of the community’s shared expectation that they would join the cooperative effort and “Ride & Drive Community-Friendly” to reduce the impact of excessive noise.
Results of the Initiative
Through participation in this cooperative effort, partnership businesses are accepting their role in sharing community values; customized-vehicle motorists are shown how they affect the broader community; and the GPD has learned that truly effective solutions require the whole community to embrace cultural change through shared values, as opposed to the department simply imposing consequences or spreading the fear of consequences.
The timing of this project was absolutely critical due to the ever-increasing numbers of custom-vehicle motorists taking to the roads. This surge of customized vehicle operators is due largely to the swelling numbers of baby boomer retirees; in addition, greater numbers of women are taking up the hobby of operating customized vehicles. Furthermore, the recent dramatic increases in gasoline prices are driving motorists to seek more fuel-efficient vehicles, such as motorcycles.
The cooperative effort initiated by the GPD has begun to contain and reduce flagrant displays of loud exhausts, which are now regarded as unacceptable behavior even within the population of customized-vehicle operators. Other law enforcement agencies in the Golden area are in the process of implementing the “Silence-is-Golden” model, taking advantage of the value of the old adage after which the partnership is named. The department shares in the collective hope that this cultural change will resolve the problem of excessive noise entirely through self-policing of customized vehicle enthusiasts.
For more information on this partnership, readers can contact Officer Moore at 303-384-8080 or via e-mail at email@example.com. ■