Looking Beyond The Ticket--Traffic Law Enforcement And Beyond


Perceptions are based on experiences and shape the way we see and think. Modifying how things are done can change our views, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, the public and law enforcement may have very different perceptions of what they should be doing.

Consider these findings published in the 1995 Source Book: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice.

  • How does the public perceive the crime issue? According to a 1993 Gallup Poll - 80 percent of the population surveyed favored putting more police officers on the street to deal with crime in the United States.
  • How do the police perceive the crime issue? According to a 1995 survey of police chiefs and sheriffs on efforts to reduce violent crime - 31 percent believed reducing drug abuse was the area to focus on, while 10 percent believed increasing the number of police officers on the street should be the area of focus.

Both groups obviously had different experiences that led them to these conclusions. Neither conclusion is necessarily wrong; they are simply based on different experiences. Looking at a problem from a different perspective of traditional law enforcement experiences will foster innovative thinking and solutions. For example, the following statements have a positive effect on how the public, law enforcement officers, highway safety advocates, and governmental bodies may perceive traffic enforcement efforts:

  • motor vehicle crashes are not accidents-they are predictable and can be prevented,
  • traffic issues are just as important to the community as criminal issues,
  • traffic law enforcement is an important element of community policing, and
  • traffic enforcement does not necessarily require "more" or "new" resources.

Referring to motor vehicle crashes as "accidents" contributes to the perception that they cannot be prevented; when, in fact, very few crashes occur because of uncontrollable circumstances. Proactive traffic enforcement efforts that remove impaired drivers from the road and enforce speed limits and rules of the road can prevent many crashes from occurring. These stops also provide an opportunity for law enforcement officers to reinforce the importance of seat belt and child seat use which prevent injuries.

Crashes aren't Accidents

Proactive enforcement of traffic violations results in numerous criminal apprehensions. More significantly, the traffic stop is perceived by the officer and the community as positive. Even though a criminal apprehension may not result during most traffic stops, the officers and the community should not only view traffic enforcement as a safety benefit, but as another tool to be used in the War on Crime. Enlightened law enforcement officers know that traffic stops can prevent crash-related personal tragedies, and they value their efforts based on that knowledge.

Most officers interviewed for this report stated they were simply "doing their job" or "I was just enforcing the law and I caught criminals." Many officers believe that educating all officers about the benefits of traffic enforcement is important. One such example is from the Laguna Vista Police Department, Texas.

Patrolman Domingo Gonzalez was on patrol July 27, 1996, when he noticed the occupants of a 1993 BMW were not wearing their safety belts (Texas has a primary safety belt use law). By running a check on the vehicle tag, Patrolman Gonzalez discovered the vehicle had been stolen. This stop resulted in the recovery of the stolen BMW and the driver charged with numerous vehicle thefts. Both occupants were involved in an elaborate scheme of test-driving expensive luxury cars and not returning them.

In an interview Patrolman Gonzalez said, "I have seen the horrors of traffic crashes and carelessness. Intoxicated drivers have taken the lives of many people on our highways." He also said, "I never know what I might discover during a traffic stop, but as I build my investigation, I may realize the stop has matured into much more (than a traffic stop)." Patrolman Gonzalez stated, "we will never know how many lives we have saved or how many lives we will save, but it is good to remember that we can only try our best."

On this particular day, like many others, Patrolman Gonzalez was "doing his job." Yet because of his belief that traffic enforcement is an important part of policing, and that a routine stop may uncover other violations or criminal acts, this stop resulted in the apprehension of two car thieves. Patrolman Gonzalez did not view the stop as "just a safety belt ticket."

Crime/Crash Clock: 1996

 Clock Logo

  • One murder every 27 minutes
  • One aggravated assault every 31 seconds
  • One violent crime every 19 seconds
  • One crime every 2 seconds
  • One property crime every 3 seconds
  • One fatality every 13 minutes
  • One injury every 9 seconds
  • One crash every 5 seconds
  • One property damage every 7 seconds

Source: NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, 1996 Uniform Crime Report, 1996, Department of Justice

Criminal acts and traffic crashes both result in personal tragedy. Nevertheless, the fact remains, traffic crashes affect Americans each year more frequently than criminal acts.

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The Facts

  • Index crimes (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson) reported in 1995 have decreased by 6.8 percent since 1991, the lowest serious crime count since 1987.
  • Motor vehicle crash fatalities in 1996 totaled 41,907, a small increase from 1995.
  • Injury rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled increased 4 percent from 1994 to 1995.
  • Motor vehicle crashes in 1995 cost $150.5 billion for medical, insurance, and wages.
  • Personal and household crime cost $19 billion in 1995.

Traffic stops regularly result in criminal arrests, drug interdiction, and criminal investigations. Some traffic stops are world renowned. For example, the Oklahoma City bombing suspect, Timothy McVeigh, was apprehended by an Oklahoma State Trooper while making a "routine" traffic stop. Serial murderer Ted Bundy, who killed over 22 women, and the Atlanta child killer, Wayne Williams, who killed 28, were also apprehended because of traffic stops. "Son of Sam," David Berkowitz, who killed 6 and wounded 7, was captured because of a parking ticket.

While not necessarily making national news, police officers and sheriff's deputies make hundreds of traffic stops every day that result in criminal apprehensions, directly affecting the security and safety of communities across the country. There are many examples of the agencies and officers who make this a regular part of their job. The following illustrate some examples.

Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department, New Mexico

Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Wooten initiated a traffic stop for speeding (86 mph in 65 mph zone). The violator, later identified as a convicted felon, became increasingly nervous as the deputy talked to him. Deputy Wooten called criminal investigators and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to assist. A search of the vehicle revealed several weapons with the serial numbers removed. The weapons were confiscated, and it was determined they were stolen during a burglary. Deputy Wooten's actions to issue a speeding ticket removed dangerous weapons from the hands of a convicted felon, thus possibly preventing further violent crimes from being committed.

California Highway Patrol

Officer Les Knapp stopped a truck for an expired Arizona registration. The female driver and male passenger were unable to produce current registration information for the vehicle. A vehicle identification number check revealed the truck had been taken in Arizona during a homicide three days prior to the stop. Descriptions of a couple wanted in connection with the murder matched the descriptions of the vehicle occupants Officer Knapp had stopped. Officer Knapp placed both subjects under arrest for auto theft, receiving stolen property, and homicide. After questioning, the couple eventually admitted involvement in the homicide. Arizona authorities extradited them to face charges. Officer Knapp has made other "looking beyond the ticket" stops and says catching criminals is simply "part of his job."

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Colorado State Patrol

Trooper Timothy Marnell stopped a vehicle for a speeding violation. The driver, who did not have any identification, was later identified as a wanted and extremely dangerous fugitive. The subject was looking for papers in the vehicle when Trooper Marnell noticed he was reaching under his jacket. Trooper Marnell felt he was in danger, drew his weapon and directed the occupant from the vehicle. Without backup, Marnell took the subject into custody. The subject was carrying a semi-automatic handgun in a shoulder holster under his jacket and two illegal knives. He had a sawed-off shotgun under a sleeping bag on the front seat of the vehicle. The subject was an escaped felon from a Utah correctional facility with convictions for murder, armed robbery, and attempted murder of a police officer. Trooper Marnell had no idea how this speeding violation would turn out when he decided to stop the vehicle. His initiative and attention to cues "beyond the ticket" resulted in a significant arrest and contributed to his own personal safety.

Traffic law enforcement is an important element of community policing. Whatever the definition, two basic precepts of community policing are:

  • to be responsive to community identified needs, and
  • to instill a sense of security in the community.

Educating and involving the community are essential elements of community policing. Once the community has identified an area of concern, either criminal or traffic, officers are expected to respond in some enforcement mode. Traffic officers can efficiently respond to both problems.

Traffic law enforcement does not necessarily require "more" or "new" resources. Many law enforcement administrators are joining forces with one another to address the traffic safety and criminal problems in their communities by sharing available resources. The resources shared may be law enforcement personnel, equipment, or support staff. As outlined in the following two examples, many agencies are using cooperative efforts to address a variety of problems, both criminal and traffic related.

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Illinois State Police, Region V - Cooperative Proactive Traffic Patrols

Illinois State Police Region V encompasses the southern third of the state, including the East St. Louis metropolitan area. Recently, rural areas in this Region have been targeted by criminals because they know there are fewer officers working in this rural area. As a result, crime is increasing and law enforcement agencies are struggling for solutions.

In response to this situation, command staff in Region V began an innovative program with a different slant on the use of the Tactical Response Team (TRT) personnel. TRTs are set up regionally by the Illinois State Police and are generally called upon for specialized or high risk situations. Assigning TRT personnel to a proactive traffic enforcement detail is a new role for the traditionally responsive TRT officers. TRT personnel are assisting municipal and county agencies to perform proactive traffic enforcement in rural areas where drug use and crime rates are high. Roadways into and out of these areas are patrolled with the additional personnel.

Over a six month period in 1996, the 5-6 officer team accomplished these goals assisted eight local and county agencies with proactive traffic enforcement. Additionally three enforcement task forces were enhanced with the additional personnel, and the additional personnel strength provided by the TRT produced numerous criminal arrests and documented the gang contacts and activity in the area. This was accomplished without additional funding. In addition to numerous traffic and criminal arrests, the effort has created a dilemma for criminals - "I wonder where the cops are tonight?" For additional information on this program, contact Master Sergeant Mark Bramlett or Sergeant Mike Irwin at (618) 346-3720.

East Valley DUI Task Force - Maricopa County Arizona

A DUI problem in Maricopa County Arizona led 10 law enforcement agencies to unite their resources for a positive result. Over the past 10 years they have been conducting this multi-agency effort. The East Valley DUI Task Force includes law enforcement agencies from the Arizona State University, Department of Public Safety, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Gilbert, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, Salt River Tribal and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office provides attorneys to help process suspected DUI offenders. Personnel, drug recognition experts, mobile booking vans and other equipment are shared by all agencies. No single agency would be able to dedicate 56 officers a day to this single effort, but by sharing resources, the Task Force saturates the targeted areas with officers.

During one week in December 1995, the Task Force posted these results:

  • 863 DUI arrests,
  • 71 warrant arrests,
  • 52 felony arrests, and
  • 124 suspended driver arrests

By combining resources, the East Valley DUI Task Force not only made significant DUI arrests but also removed criminals from the communities where the Task Force was working. For additional information on this program contact: Alberto Gutier, Director of Community and Highway Safety, 3010 N. Second St. 105 Phoenix, AZ 85012

In reality, working through the challenges will overcome negative perceptions, making "looking beyond the ticket" an effective tool for law enforcement. The following are four additional areas identified as challenges.

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Contents | Looking Beyond the Ticket: Traffic Law Enforcement and Beyond | Benefits |  Challenges |  Perceptions | Crime/Crash Clock 1996 |  The Facts | Education | Elements of Success | References