On traffic patrol, not all goes as planned
JANESVILLE Three Beloiters in a Chevrolet Cavalier had their Friday evening interrupted by a Janesville police officer who pulled up next to them on Milton Avenue.
Officer Aaron Dammen was on special patrol. He was looking for traffic violators, especially people who weren't wearing their seat belts or were driving drunk.
At night, it's nearly impossible to tell whether someone is wearing a belt unless you're right next to him, Dammen told a Gazette reporter who rode with him for about two hours.
Dammen motioned for the front-seat passenger to put on his belt. He did. Then Dammen told the driver to pull into Milton Lawns Memorial Park, just ahead.
Dammen followed. He turned on his emergency lights and spotlight, lighting up the Cavalier at it stopped in the cemetery.
It was a stop that wouldn't have happened except for a state grant that paid for three Janesville officers to augment the regular patrols Friday and Saturday.
Police departments across the county and the Rock County Sheriff's Office also increased traffic patrols. A state "Booze and Belts" grant paid for officers' overtime.
Law enforcement across the state participated in the operation between Dec. 7 and Sunday.
Back at the cemetery, the driver said she had heard of the special seat-belt enforcement.
"I always wear mine faithfully," she said.
The driver said she had learned her lesson after getting two seat-belt tickets in Illinois, where the penalty is higher.
It's a $10 ticket in Wisconsin.
The passenger who had not been wearing a belt was hoping for a break. He had been wearing it but forgot to buckle after leaving a store moments before, he said.
"Can you give me a warning, please?"
Dammen could not. He had a quota to fill.
The grant required him to make a minimum of one traffic stop every 45 minutes. And he couldn't just issue warnings. The grant required three citations for every warning.
The passenger was in for another unpleasant surprise. He had two outstanding fines he hadn't paid in Beloit, totaling $281. He protested that he had been to the courthouse earlier Friday to pay a fine. He thought he was clear. He wasn't. The fines were for his daughter's truancy, he said, and he blamed the mother, who he said was often too drunk to take her to school.
"If I'd known, I'd have paid it today," he said.
"Yeah, I know you would have," Dammen said sympathetically.
Dammen is a crafty veteran of such stops with a friendly curbside manner that usually works to his advantage, he said.
Dammen cuffed the man and put him in the squad's back seat. Next time, pay fines at a police department, which will check all outstanding warrants, he advised the man.
The grant allowed Dammen to record the warrant arrest as a citation, which put him ahead for the evening. But he had to take the man to the Rock County Jail, which took time.
The man, meanwhile, was hoping his friends would come up with bail money.
Dammen said the streets are probably safer because of the publicity of the Booze and Belts campaign, but he wasn't sure it would have a lasting effect.
Referring to the Cavalier's driver, he said: "Maybe the next time she might tell every person in the car to put their seat belts on."
The goal of the grant is to work toward eliminating preventable traffic deaths in Wisconsin, according to a Department of Transportation news release.
Last December, the state recorded more than 11,000 traffic crashes that caused 51 deaths and more than 3,500 injuries.
Dammen returned to patrol, first stopping a pickup truck for having a taillight out. Dammen let him go with a warning.
Dammen later caught a speeder on West Memorial Drive who was going 36 mph in a 25 mph zone, according to Dammen's radar gun.
"I gotta give you a ticket," Dammen said apologetically, adding that he was on traffic-enforcement duty.
"Thank you for your cooperation," he added.
Back in the squad, a dispatcher reported a man with a handgun in a house on the south side. Every officer in town responded. Booze and belts went out the window.
Dammen punched it down Memorial Drive as reports continued. The dispatcher said the man was threatening himself. Dammen stepped on it, the acceleration pushing the reporter into his seat as the squad ran red lights and exceeded 65 mph down Center Avenue.
Police swarmed the neighborhood south of Kellogg Avenue. The man gave himself up peacefully, and Dammen returned to patrol.
The only thing missing from the night, the reporter remarked, was a drunken driving arrest.
Dammen said there would most likely be one before his shift ended.