Cops’ goal: Slow speeders down

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Mike DuPre'
Sunday, February 24, 2008
— The tone from the radar gun whined clear and steady. Its screen read 42 mph.

“There’s one now,” Janesville police officer Kyle Austin said.

Austin was running radar on Center Avenue at Wolcott Street. The speed limit there is 30 mph.

He pulled out behind the speeding full-size pickup truck and turned on his flashing lights. A few blocks later, the truck pulled over. Austin spoke briefly with the driver—a Beloit resident—and returned to his squad car with the man’s license in hand.

“He said he thought he was going 39 in a 35 (mph zone). It’s not really egregious,” Austin said as he typed the driver’s license information into his computer.

So, ticket or warning?

“A warning, unless he’s got tickets,” Austin said.

The cop discovered the driver was ticketed for speeding last May and had been stopped in Rock County in the fall, but the computer entry for the fall stop contained no notes as to the stop’s nature.

Austin decided on a warning.

Earlier, the officer told a reporter and photographer for The Janesville Gazette:

“Our goal is not to write tickets. It’s to make people slow down, to reduce accidents and property damage.”

Janesville residents continually complain that local police are lax in enforcing speed limits and that the result is more speeding and more accidents.

The gripes are, if not frequent, regular and predictable in neighborhood meetings organized by city officials and in The Janesville Gazette’s Sound Off section and letters to the editor.

Asked if speed enforcement is a departmental priority, Capt. Dan Davis, patrol supervisor, said:

“It is a priority. It’s one of many. But the question is: ‘How many resources do we allocate to that priority?’ We allocate resources as situations dictate and time permits.”

The maximum number of patrol officers that Janesville police can put on any one shift without using overtime is 16 on the second shift, Davis said.

The 3 to 11 p.m. shift is the department’s busiest.

The max for first and third shifts is 13 each.

But the reality of vacations, illnesses, family leaves, training and special assignments means the average number is 9.5 officers for the first shift, 12 for the second and 10 for the overnight shift, Davis explained.

The city has eight primary patrol districts requiring at least one officer per shift 24/7, he said.

Part of those officers’ responsibilities is enforcing speed limits, and they should enforce limits if other duties don’t prevent that, Davis said.

Last year, the department logged almost 74,000 officer activities, which include calls for service. That works out to almost 203 activities a day, or about 6.5 per average officer.

The activities can be anything from Austin’s traffic stop—which took about 20 minutes and didn’t involve writing a ticket—to quelling a domestic disturbance, following up on a burglary or sitting in court waiting to testify.

“I think it’s a lot,” Davis said.

But some residents think their traffic complaints are ignored.

Gerard Wolter, 3304 Lapidary Lane, complained at a neighborhood meeting in February 2007 about speeding on his street.

Last summer, speeding was about the same, Wolter said.

“City police never talked to me about it,” he said last week. “There was nobody that came out to investigate.”

Davis said the officers who patrol the area were told of Wolter’s concerns and asked to monitor traffic and enforce speed laws as time permitted.

At a similar meeting a month later, George Lichtfuss, 1216 N. Randall Ave., complained about speeding on his street late in the afternoon.

“Traffic hasn’t slowed down one bit,” Lichtfuss said. ‘They (police) didn’t do anything. Once in a while you might see a cop go by, once or twice a week on Randall Avenue. I wish the cops would do something on this street.”

The cops did, Davis said.

He “vehemently disputed” Lichtfuss’ observations.

In fact, departmental records show that police deployed their speed trailer—the device that records speed, displays it to drivers and flashes a warning at speeders—on Lichtfuss’ block four consecutive days in March 2007, Davis said.

“When we get complaints about speed, our typical response is to put out the speed trailer … to gauge the merits of the complaint,” he said. “The speed trailer is seldom in the same place every day because we get so many requests for speed enforcement.”

Speed trailer deployment depends on the weather, he explained, as he presented records showing 71 deployments from March 26 through July 7.

If the speed trailer records many speeding violations, police will direct enforcement at the area, Davis said.

In addition, the department identified 13 problem areas for accidents during the first seven months of 2007 with an eye toward aggressive traffic enforcement.

The city periodically receives state grants to pay for overtime for targeted traffic enforcement. This year, the city will spend its $20,000 grant on a second speed trailer—$5,000—and the remaining $15,000 for about 320 hours of enforcement overtime, Davis said.

“When officers are working grant hours, their sole responsibility is speed enforcement,” Davis said.

And when an officer is doing such enforcement, he or she is obligated to make at least one traffic stop every 45 minutes and write at least three tickets for every warning issued, Davis said.

In 2007, local cops made about 10,000 traffic stops and wrote 6,094 tickets.

Obviously, not every stop results in a ticket, and many stops result in more than one citation.

Last year, Davis said, Janesville police wrote 810 speed-related tickets: 717 for speeding, 93 for driving too fast for conditions. The latter typically result from accidents in bad weather.

Officers are allowed to use discretion on when to make stops, write tickets or issue warnings.

Conversations with officers and folks at the courthouse indicate that all cops have a cushion for enforcement and typically don’t write tickets for just a couple of mph over the limit.

The cushions usually depend on conditions such as type of road, pavement condition and traffic volume, or as cops often say, “the totality of circumstances.”

The cushions can range from 5 mph over the limit on a slippery residential street to 15 mph over on a major thoroughfare. Talk around the courthouse is that tickets are rare for anything less than 8 mph over.

Austin, who has been one of the department’s speed radar and laser instructors for more than four years, said age and gender don’t matter: Speeders are males and females of all driving ages.

“We take it (enforcement) seriously,” he said, “but it depends on manpower.”

On the street, his presence had an effect.

Dozens of speeding drivers noticed his squad and slowed down.

Austin made only one stop, but he achieved his stated goal: Speeders slowed down.

Last updated: 3:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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