Police respond to traffic pleas
By CHRIS TISCH
LARGO -- Largo residents are getting what they asked for.
The Police Department has formed a traffic enforcement unit, which already has issued almost 150 citations to speeding motorists and other bad drivers. The unit also plans to focus on the city's 10 most accident-prone intersections.
But police Chief Lester Aradi said his department will not be a ticket-writing machine. He has instructed officers to use discretion and issue written warnings to drivers when they can.
On Dec. 22, the unit issued 95 citations for traffic infractions in the area of 113th Street and Ulmerton Road. Officers issued another 49 citations Saturday in the same place. Most citations were for speeding, even though only drivers going more than 15 mph over the limit were pulled over.
Officers in the unit do issue warnings, but motorists blazing by at 15 mph over the limit will be ticketed, said Lt. Glen Smith, who commands the traffic section. So will drivers who run red lights or fail to strap a child in a car seat, Smith said.
A retooling of the department's computer system will make it easier to determine if a motorist has been given warnings in the past, Aradi said.
It didn't take long for Aradi, who will celebrate a year in the chief's chair in February, to realize that traffic was on the minds of many residents.
Phone calls to his office and complaints from people he met in neighborhoods had a theme: Strictly enforce the traffic laws.
Aradi decided to re-form a traffic enforcement section that the former chief had dissolved years before. Aradi also softened the ticketing policy, which had been to issue no warnings, and asked Smith to focus on education as well as enforcement.
"I told him: "I want a lot of ingenuity, I want you to think out of the box, and I want there to be a lot of innovation,"' Aradi said.
A survey of residents this fall by the department reinforced what Aradi had been hearing. Some sarcasm and frustration were evident.
"Is it illegal to run red lights in Pinellas County?" one asked. "I would think it is the source of most traffic accidents."
Another resident responded: "I have clocked cars at 60 mph in a 25 mph zone. Largo PD is invisible."
Aradi's resolve to make traffic enforcement a priority increased. Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein has made similar recent strides to focus on traffic enforcement.
But because of a high number of openings in the department, Aradi couldn't immediately move officers into his traffic section. That probably won't happen until summer. In the meantime, Smith has been gathering ad hoc teams of officers for the details.
Smith, a recent graduate of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., said he has plans to make educating people about traffic laws -- and the consequences of breaking them -- a priority.
He plans to put electronic message boards near the worst intersections to warn motorists that a traffic detail may be coming up. The signs also will advise drivers to slow down, buckle up or brake for red lights.
Smith also wants community police officers to distribute traffic safety fliers to neighborhood watch groups and mobile home park associations.
"My main goal is to cut down the accidents and fatalities," Smith said.
Aradi plans to sprinkle the team with experienced traffic cops and young officers who are enthusiastic about traffic enforcement. The team will comprise a lieutenant, a sergeant and four officers, all specially trained in traffic.
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