Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Report from Week Five: Citizens' Police Academy

Is your automobile’s inspection sticker up to date? If not, beware of the Pittsburgh Police’s Traffic Enforcement Division. They look for those things.

Thankfully, I’d just had my car inspected Monday morning before going to this week’s Citizens’ Police Academy class.

Before the motorcycle officers from traffic spoke, we had a chance to learn about the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s Citizen Police Review Board courtesy of Board Member Elizabeth Pittinger who spoke passionately about the board and its duties. They investigate individual complaints of police misconduct and make recommendations regarding the Bureau of Police. With their help, training and systemic problems get corrected, often without the need to go to court. Formed after the police involved killings of Jerry Jackson and Johnny Gammage in 1995, the board consists of seven members. Four are appointed from a list of candidates offered by city council and the other three are direct appointments of the mayor. Two are law enforcement professionals. The other five have no requirements other than being city residents. They employ two full time investigators and average 500 complaints a year. The CPRB protects good cops from bad citizens and good citizens from bad cops.

One tidbit of information that you might find useful in your writing or in any dealings you have with the police, an officer MUST give you his name and badge number if you ask for it. If he says it’s on the citation, well, it is, but that isn’t good enough. Writing can be illegible. He must GIVE you that information if asked. Otherwise, you have a right to complain to the Citizen Police Review Board.

Elizabeth went on to tell us about a recent incident when a child was struck by a car. As police and medics tried to do their jobs, family members milled about along with a growing crowd of onlookers. One of the stressed-out cops at the scene made an unfortunate rude comment, which was overheard by the victim’s grandmother and several other family members. The grandmother made a complaint to the CPRB. The officer deeply regretted making the statement and agreed to meet with the family. He apologized in person to the grandmother, who had had a few run-ins with police of her own. The officer did not let the grandmother’s history color his remorse. Instead of this incident becoming a public relations nightmare, the board facilitated a scenario in which public trust in the police was built.

Following the presentation on the CPRB, Sean Pindel and Jim Miles, motorcycle officers with the Traffic Division spoke of their duties and fielded dozens of questions.

Traffic is broken down into smaller divisions including Collision Investigation, River Rescue (not really a separate division, but some of the Traffic Officers take on the specialized training required), Intoxilyzer Unit (does the breath testing…blood and urine tests are conducted at the hospital), Motorcycle, and Truck Safety Enforcement.

On the topic of Truck Safety, I have always been intimidated by tractor trailers. Now I will give even more thought to that big rig following me down the highway. When a tractor comes off the lot, brand new, already the brakes are only functioning at 70%. A rush-job to repair an on-the-road break-down could cut that to even less. I always knew they couldn’t exactly stop on a dime, but now…I think I’ll just pull over and let them pass me next time one is tailgating me. Fines for trucks are steep. In the city, if a truck driver is caught crossing one of our many little bridges over gross, fines START at $5000. Officers would then do a full inspection, which would likely rack up even more fines.

Currently, Pittsburgh has only 23 motorcycles after once having up to 45. Those numbers may very soon be going back up. Motorcycle officers work demonstrations, making sure they remain peaceful. They escort dignitaries to, through, and out of town. And they deal with the day-to-day stuff as well. Like speed enforcement.

Did you know that only the State Police are permitted to use Radar? But that leaves plenty of other options for local police to nab speeders. VASCAR can be used in a variety of ways, but requires hours of training and even more hours of practice before an officer even takes the certification test. Our two officers made no effort to disguise their preference for Accutrak, a small, handheld device similar to stopwatch. Used with those white lines painted on the road, an officer clicks once when a predetermined part of the car (say the left front tire) crosses the first line and then clicks it again when the same part of the car crosses the second line. Accutrak then does the math and displays the car’s speed. Another type of time/distance speed measuring device is ESP.

ESP involves a three-piece unit. Two pieces sit across the street from each other and emit a beam that is broken by a car passing between them. Those two units are wired to a third piece, a module in the police vehicle which displays the speed.

Similar to ESP, but wireless, is ENRADD.

There is also a laser gun, similar to a radar gun, but any department can use it. All of these require that the officer be certified to use the equipment EXCEPT the Accutrak.

Terminology check: It is “speed enforcement” NOT a “speed trap” as we tend to call it.

By the way, an officer cannot issue you a ticket for speeding until you have gone 10 miles over the limit. And often they give you 15 miles. The exception to this rule is school zones. There, you will get busted if you’re going 16 mph. If you are eleven miles an hour over the 15 mph limit, the fines start at $500.


Terminology check #2: There is no such thing as an “accident.” It’s a “collision.” In collision investigation, an officer will take statements from all parties involved including witnesses, but does not include his opinion as to who is at fault in his report. HOWEVER, he may issue citations for violations that have occurred. Those citations may then indicate what caused the collision (not accident).

Phew! There was a ton more information given to us this week. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this for now. Want to hear more? Attend the next Citizens’ Police Academy! It’s well worth your time and effort.

Next week: The Emergency Operations Center. FIELD TRIP!


Lee Lofland said...

Great information, Annette. Sounds like you're having a ball.

I'd like to point out that some of the things you've mentioned that don't apply in other areas, such as who can use radar, and the ten mile an hour over the limit rules. Those two things do not apply in other states.

Most police departments are allowed to use any type of radar equipment, and do. And, there's no law in any state that I'm aware of where officers cannot issue a summons unless the speeder is traveling in excess of ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

In fact, here in Ma., troopers were just instructed to write tickets for any speeding infraction on the Mass Pike. There was a big write-up about that in the Boston Globe a couple weeks ago.

When I used to work radar in Virginia, we normally allowed ten miles over the posted limit on the interstate highways, but not inside the city limits. We did this just as a courtesy because sometimes speedometers are a little off, and even odd-size tires can throw off a speedometer.

Just goes to show what we've been saying all along. No two areas are the same.

Gina said...

Annette -
Great job of summarizing an information-packed class!
In all fairness to the Pittsburgh Police, though, I want to mention that they didn't kill either of the two civilians mentioned. Johnny Gammadge was killed by suburban police and Jerry Jackson by Port Authority police.

Tory said...

Thanks, Annette, for a great summary!

I'll always be careful in those school speed zones after getting an expensive ticket for going 20 mph in a 15 mph zone (and that's exactly how fast I was going)!

Annette said...

Lee, you're right. The information we are being given (and that I am passing along) is specific to Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. The 10mph cushion is partly to allow for human error regarding the time/distance equipment. Like not hitting the button at the precise moment, etc. And, as you mentioned, for other variables.

They also told us to ALWAYS fight a speeding ticket. That advice comes from the COPS, folks.

They didn't say you'd always beat it, though. ;-)

And, thanks, Gina, for pointing that out. Pittsburgh City Police were NOT involved in either of those shootings.

Joyce said...

Good info, Annette.

FYI, the PA state police only give 5 miles over, so beware! And you can be given a citation locally for being less than 10 miles over, just not for speeding. They use one called "Driving at a safe speed," or another one "Too fast for conditions."

Our officers (who are doing a Smooth Operator Speed Enforcement detail on Route 8 today) use Vascar, Accutrak and ENRADD. They also advise requesting a hearing when you get a citation. It probably won't reduce your fine at all, but it might cut the points against your license. The fines add up quickly--the basic fine for running a stop sign is $25, but once all the extra fees are added on, it's over $100.

We have 2 motorcycle officers, one of them is our Accident Reconstructionist.(We call it an accident or 10-45, the state calls it a crash.)

Annette said...

Thanks, Joyce. I'm glad everyone is adding to the information I'm sharing from CPA. It's like a bonus class here at Working Stiffs!

I guess what this really goes to show is that when you're writing about a real locale, don't rely on general information. You have to do your research to get the proper local flavor.

It also shows that since I'm currently writing about a fictional community, I have some leeway!

mike said...

Great stuff, Annette. How I regret not signing up for those classes. Glad to hear a positive report on the board--immense controversy over that when it was formed.

As for speeding, I try to stick to no more than 72 on the turnpike and highways, weather and traffic permitting--a 7 mph gap over the posted limit suggested by my dad, who, as a traveling salesman, drive 100,000 miles a year and never got a ticket. Figure he knew what he was talking about.

A fellow bowler and city cop told me Sunday about an incident that typified her average day--a run-in with the owner of an car left parked on a city street with an expired (by 4+ months) inspection sticker. She was there to oversee the towing of his car--he was argumentative, abusive, and just generally obnoxious. Luckily, it didn't escalate, but she was always aware that it could've.

Martha Reed said...

Annette, wonderful post with lots of great information. It sounds like you are getting your money's worth out of this program!

Annette said...

Yeah, Martha, especially since it didn't cost anything. Okay, gasoline, but I love my little Saturn. And I've pitched in buying a case of bottled water some chips to munch on. So it's definitely fair to say I'm getting my money's worth.

Gina said...

Uh, Martha, as a fellow participant in CPA, I have to point out that these classes are free.* Annette and I are getting way more than our money's worth!

* Of course, as a City of Pittsburgh resident, I'm thrilled to see my tax dollars at work in such a worthwhile way.

Lee Lofland said...

Definitely go to court when you receive a summons for a traffic infraction. Many courts will reduce the speed (which lowers the points)just because you showed up and asked for forgiveness.

Also, some courts will dismiss the charges if the ticketing officer doesn't show up. That happens more often than you'd think. She could have worked the night before and overslept, or she may have simply forgotten to go to court.

donnell b. said...

Annette, congratulations, you are sounding more and more like a cop! I can't wait to read your book to see what you bring to your writing. I'm always amazed at people who feel they are being *picked on* by police when they are stopped for speeding. Tell that to the person they hit on the curb when their vehicle went out of control, or the helplessless they feel when they collide with a car or what's more a person. In my city, a 19-year-old-boy going 70miles per hour just hit a 15 year old standing on the street corner. There aren't two victims here, there are many. Excellent post as always. ~ Donnell

Gina said...

Just as a follow up to the advice to fight your ticket: in my limited experience, when you show up to contest anything, it's best to be either contrite and apologetic, or, if you honestly believe that the ticket is an error, politely able to coherently explain your basis for believing that. If you get nasty and belligerent, the presiding officer (judge, district justice, whatever) is likely to react negatively and really slam you.

Annette said...

Hi, Donnell!

The guys mentioned how some folks they pull over gripe about all the real crime on the streets, druggies, etc and WHY DON'T YOU GO AFTER THE REAL CRIMINALS INSTEAD OF BOTHERING ME??? To which they point out that there is a narcotics squad and a homocide division to take care of that stuff. The traffic division's job IS to "bother" you speeders.

And, Gina, yes, it's generally better to use honey than vinegar, especially when dealing with people who can put you in jail or at the very least adversely affect the condition of your bank account.