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Trooper's patrols irk some officials

Jesus Lopez sees his patrols as a service to his hometown. The mayor wishes Lopez had more of a 'Treasure Island attitude.'

[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
State Trooper Jesus Lopez often donates an hour at the end of his shift to his home turf, Treasure Island. When it comes to speeding or tollbooth violations, Lopez says it's zero tolerance: always a ticket, never a warning.

By KATHY SAUNDERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- His workday is over, but Jesus Lopez often gives another hour to his hometown. At no charge. Whether the city fathers want him to or not.

Lopez, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, parks his motorcycle at the Treasure Island tollbooth and he waits for speeders and toll runners. On Aug. 1, he handed out 14 tickets in less than an hour.

"I do it as a public safety," Lopez said. "This is our neighborhood, and if you like it here, drive safely."

Lopez, 45, is a member of the highway patrol's nine-person motorcycle squad, responsible for patrolling the roads in a seven-county area. He can write tickets anywhere in the state.

"A lot of times I will do this when I am supposed to be home," Lopez said. "I just don't want people hot-rodding down this strip."

Some city officials don't appreciate the help. "I would rather he not do it," said Mayor Leon Atkinson. Earlier this year, a mother called the mayor and said she would never return to Treasure Island because of the ticket and lecture that Lopez gave her teenage daughter when she went through the toll booth without paying.

"She just didn't like his demeanor," Atkinson said. "He (Lopez) told the kid to grow up."

The girl had a toll pass on her car, but it was expired. The St. Petersburg woman and her daughter declined to talk publicly about the incident.

But Lopez remembered it well. He said he told the teenager that if she was old enough to own and drive a car, she was old enough to get a current bridge pass. The city sells the passes at City Hall for $20 a year. Without a pass, the bridge costs 50 cents each way.

"She's scared to come out here. She's scared to drive," Atkinson said of the teenager.

The mayor said he explained to the girl's mother that Lopez was not a member of the Treasure Island police force. He sent her a city pin as a peace offering.

"I asked her not to judge our policemen by this guy," said Atkinson.

Lopez allows that he has a no-tolerance policy when it comes to speeders and toll violators.

"I don't give warnings," said Lopez. "We're out here to educate the public."

Atkinson said he would prefer that Lopez ticket speeders and toll booth violators "with a little more of a Treasure Island attitude."

The city's police officers give more warnings than tickets, according to Sgt. Tim Casey, who is in charge of police administration. The city has a 20-member police force with three squad cars patrolling the city at any given time.

"I don't see anything wrong with a warning," Atkinson said. "I think he (Lopez) could probably find something better to do on Highway 19. I guess here he doesn't have to go too far from home. He's got a little cherry patch."

City Manager Chuck Coward said the tollbooth operators love Lopez.

"The toll operators are always happy to see enforcement out there, but they don't set policy, the city commissioners set policy," Coward said. "The city commissioners said they would prefer not to have that level of enforcement at the bridge."

Commissioners declined last year to put video equipment at the bridge to catch toll violators.

Lopez, who usually patrols the Interstate while on duty, said he has the authority to write as many tickets as he wants. The fee for running the Treasure Island toll booth is $120. It's another $120 for speeding more than 10 miles over the limit -- which is what Lopez usually allows.

Lopez has only nice things to say about Treasure Island and its leaders. And he pointed out that all of the revenue from the tickets he writes there goes back to Treasure Island.

"I applaud Treasure Island for keeping a good and clean image for the city," he said.

Lopez said he always treats drivers with respect.

"I already know they are stressed out if I pull them over," he said. "I try to be as helpful as possible, and I sort of give it (the ticket) to them with a spoonful of sugar."

When she learned his identity, City Commissioner Mary Maloof said she had no problem with the additional enforcement at the tollbooth.

"I thought he was some wacko out there, so I called police. I wanted to make sure he wasn't some kook impersonating an officer," said Maloof, who called police Aug. 1 when she saw Lopez handing out tickets on the Causeway. "If he wants to catch our toll runners -- hooray!"

Coincidentally, Sgt. Casey said the Treasure Island police last Wednesday began assigning special units to patrol the tollbooth area. He said the officers will rotate at two-hour random shifts.

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