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Wheels and Heels: Talking Traffic With Decatur's Deputy Police Chief

Find out what Deputy Chief J.K. Lee thinks about dangerous intersections, traffic ticket quotas and pedestrian safety

How many people died in traffic accidents in Decatur in the past year? Do Decatur Police officers have a daily quota of tickets to write? What's Decatur's most dangerous intersection?

Patch's Wheels and Heels columnist sat down and talked traffic with Decatur's Deputy Police Chief J. K. Lee.

Q: How safe is Decatur traffic?

Two years ago, we added a traffic enforcement unit, including adding our first police motorcycle unit in 20 years. Our traffic enforcement vehicle is a Charger instead of a Crown Victoria, with different graphics. So, we’ve got a 2-person traffic safety team in place for the past two years.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in traffic enforcement in the city. Except in emergencies, traffic enforcement is their sole duty.

 Q: Some people -- who we suspect drive too fast-- complain that traffic tickets are just a way that police departments make money.  Is that true, or is promoting traffic safety the chief objective of the unit?

First of all, I couldn’t tell you what amount of money the city raises from traffic citations. I don’t know, and it really wouldn’t matter to me. Whether the officers write tickers or not, the budget to pay for their salary is in place. We don’t get any more money, or any less money, because of the tickets we write.

There is no quota of tickets that officers are required to write. Officers are required to participate in traffic enforcement. If officers on patrol see traffic violations, we expect them to take action.

Q: If an officer stops a motorist for a traffic violation, is a ticket inevitable?

An officer has three options on a traffic stop. Write a regular citation; write a warning citation; or make an arrest. An arrest would be made for a DUI, driving with a suspended license, having no insurance, a hit-and-run suspect, or illegal drugs.

Officers have discretion on how they wish to handle violations. We expect them to be out there addressing these issues. On the other hand, if a traffic enforcement officer is not writing any tickets, he’s probably not doing his job.

Q: Officers are often working at school zones. Is that a priority?

We place a heavy emphasis on school zone enforcement; that’s why we have so many crossing guards. We currently have 21 crossing guard positions in the city, which is about four times as many as we have officers on duty. With the opening of a new school on Fifth Avenue, we’re looking at adding some crossing guards.

Q: What’s the city’s most dangerous intersection?

Well, we’ve had no traffic fatalities in the city for the past two years. Our most dangerous intersections would be any multi-lane road with heavy traffic, such as Scott Boulevard and Clairmont Road.

Q: Are Decatur officers writing many tickets for texting?

I haven’t seen any citations for texting. That’s a very difficult law to enforce. An officer has to be able to see someone texting, and when people text, they generally hold their phones out of sight in the car. It’s a very difficult law to enforce.

Q: How is the city for pedestrian safety? Are you writing jaywalking tickets?

Periodically, we do pedestrian crosswalk investigations to address both driver and pedestrian safety. Most of our pedestrian mishaps have been relatively small and happen at mid-block crossings. They happen when a pedestrian crossing the road at a point other than the crosswalk.  For instance, in 2009, we had 771 accidents, 12 involving pedestrians.

Q: What else is coming up?

This summer, we’re repeating our Junior Police Academy for rising eighth and ninth graders. Last year, we limited it to 12, and ended up with eight students. We gave them an overview of police work, practical exercises; they helped conduct a traffic stop. They did different things in the classroom and courtroom.

NOTE: Patch asked Assistant City Manager Andrea T. Arnold for some budget figures related to traffic. She told us that the police department's annual budget for uniform patrol, which includes the traffic unit, is $2.9 million.  The city budgeted $600,000 in revenue from fines for all code violations, most of which would be traffic-related, but not all.

Anne Fowlkes February 11, 2011 at 09:28 PM
I got a ticket for stopping between the two white lines in front of the fire station. Since my ticket months ago, I go that way every day and during rush hours, there are always cars stopped between the lines but I have never seen another person get a ticket. I suggest that the police either enforce that law or don't. Ideally, there should be an electronic signal when the fire trucks need to get out. If one does stop at the white line when going south, people behind you blow their horns and it backs traffic up on church street. It is a situation that needs consideration.

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