Education equally important as enforcement in special traffic patrols
VANCOUVER — You’ve heard it all before. The statistics have been shown, and the horror stories touted. You may have even been caught and given a warning.
“Don’t drive distracted. This time I’ll just give you a warning, but you will get a citation if it happens again.”
As you drove off, you may have felt annoyed, angry, ashamed, embarrassed, or even just plain freaked out. If you felt any of those emotions, you’re in good company. Subsequently, you may happen upon articles like this one with disdain and maybe even an eyeroll.
There is, however, one piece of information that may be left out of assessments like those: the true primary goal of many members of law enforcement isn’t only enforcement; it’s education.
“When I decide to pull someone over or stop someone, I don’t pull people over because they’re driving the way that I would drive if I weren’t at work,” said Clark County Sheriff’s Officer Traffic Detective, Bethany Lau. “If they’re driving the way that I drive, I tend not to pull those people over, I tend to wait and pull people over when whatever they’re doing is egregious.”
“If what they’re doing really impacts the safety of others, that’s when I make my traffic stop. That’s when I make my determination: Is this something that education will solve, or is enforcement going to be needed today?”
Early this month, Lau and officers from several other agencies including Vancouver and Washougal Police, participated in a Target Zero distracted driving enforcement. The set up is simple: one cop on the road in plain clothes as a spotter, while the others patrol as normal awaiting intel.
Target Zero, which is a Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) program with the goal of eliminating traffic related fatalities in Washington by the year 2030, funds the added patrols directly by assembling the multi-agency task force.
“We reach out through our leadership to find officers that are really invested in traffic safety in our community,” said Jesamie Peters, the Target Zero manager Region 6, which includes Clark and Skamania counties. “I ask myself, and I’ve seen people ask themselves, how many serious or fatal injury crashes are acceptable? And then how many are acceptable in your family?”
“If that answer is zero, then we need to work together and stay on our priorities of putting down our cell phones and not driving distracted or under the influence so that everyone can get home safely.”
Another key element that Target Zero and many officers like Lau are quick to remind people of is any impairment is dangerous and likely illegal. Many times when a distracted driving stop is made, other infarctions have compounded the situation and added to the noticeable impairment of the subject, like drug use or even just eating food, Lau said.
After one stop which ended in an arrest due to outstanding warrants, the subject in custody told Lau that she would not drive high on marijuana because it made her paranoid, but that she believed driving after drinking was manageable.
It’s this kind of flawed categorization or tiering that leads to a deadly culture of distraction, Lau explained. Overthinking an argument, or being on methamphetamine; both can cause impairment that could end in tragedy, she said.
“If you’re too focused on other things, even just going on in your head, you’re thinking too much, you’re under the influence of something, that potentially has significant consequences,” Lau said. “Someone else could die because of that, or you can seriously hurt someone, all because you’re not focused on driving.”
The Target Zero enforcements occur each month with different areas of focus, and an overarching goal of shifting the culture with a combination of consequence and education. The mentality is akin to the original introduction by the Washington state legislature of penalizing mobile device use while driving back in 2008, and then further in 2017.
Target Zero’s task force will take on drunk driving with added DUI patrols at the beginning of May, on and around Cinco de Mayo.
During the reporting for this story, I rode along with Det. Lau to obtain visuals, as we often do with Target Zero stories. This time the officer I was accompanying happened to be the one to make an arrest.
This is not uncommon, even for distracted driving patrols. The story is all too often the same: the subject was texting, talking or driving without a seatbelt, and while pulled over, discovered to have warrants on existing charges.
In this case, the subject, a young woman, was not wearing a seatbelt. She had a litany of misdemeanor warrants, a suspended license and lacked the proper ignition tracking device required from a past DUI conviction.
She had also been charged with promoting or participating in prostitution in Seattle.
I write about this to display what comes next. After taking her into custody Lau, myself and the subject all made the long drive to the Clark County jail. During that ride conversation was made.
I’ll pause briefly here to be transparent and thoroughly honest. I grew up in a family with law enforcement. I heard many stories of people being taken to jail. Some crazy, others with notes of compassion and a few with moments resembling redemption.
The conversation between Lau and the woman in custody, who was my age and had a three-year-old son, was one of those that rang of compassion, understanding and education.
The subject in custody asked Lau questions, and she answered them. Lao offered tough advice, and even tougher realities. The subject listened. The subject understood. The subject said other cops wouldn’t always do that. I would say she was even thankful.
It’s a challenge to find many thankful people in handcuffs.
Ultimately, I too had a brief conversation with the subject. I told her I wouldn’t be using her name or likeness. They weren’t needed for the story I was doing. She thanked me as well. I told her I thought she would be OK, if she saw this as a chance to set things right. She said she agreed.
I told her I’d been praying for her, and that Jesus loved her. If you know me, I can’t help but tell anyone this. She began to cry, and said thank you one more time. Then she went to jail.
I’m not sure if the education and compassion she received from Lau will change her decisions, or if the things I said will have any impact, but I do know that neither hurt. I suppose I’m writing this because this uncomfortable and unexpected experience in a strange way gave me some hope.
It gave me hope because I witnessed the real “why” of healthy, honest, unbiased, honoring, and truthful police work. The police work I grew up with. The police work I know not everyone knows. But the police work I know is out there. And it gives me hope.