My years as a Highway Patrol officer haunt me, in a good way, as I travel about America. On those occasions that I encounter a police officer working traffic, I cannot help but to silently critique his or her every move while I have them in sight. Safety engineering has significantly diminished their ability to “work” traffic in the opposing lanes of Interstate Highways and you seldom encounter the “wolf Pack” operations of years past when troopers would target a particular county and introduce as many violators as possible to the local circuit court. To the casual observer, these operations appear to be simply revenue raising opportunities to fatten school funds and tax coffers. To alert traffic officers, they represent sublime opportunities to detect and arrest bad actors. Let’s talk about traffic enforcement, the unglamorous aspect of policing, in a law enforcement world that has become highly specialized.
I write with great deference to the specialties within law enforcement. I once commanded the Highway Patrol’s Criminal Bureau, and loved the association with our criminal investigator’s who were among the best sleuths anywhere in this country. These folks were tireless, intelligent, accomplished conversationalists (read interrogators), with uncanny instincts. I was also privileged to command other specialized Patrol components, such as Driver Examination, Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, Governor’s Security and our Information Systems component. All of these folks were dedicated professionals who were on the cutting edge of their respective specialties. Having said this, my heart will always lie with the guys on the road, required to combine a working knowledge of each of these specialties as they police our roads and highways. Indeed, when assigned a new officer to train, I always enjoyed a cup of coffee on the first day of training, where I dispensed a critical piece of advice to the raw officer. “Every killer, rapist, burglar, drug courier, scam artist, child molester, thief, drunk and sociopath, at one time or another, relies upon a motor vehicle to get from one point to another. An alert officer, working traffic will come in contact with them and has a unique opportunity to detect and, possibly, arrest them”. Later, as a field commander, I developed a strong preference for the road officer who was an accomplished generalist, able to work from beginning to end any event that required the services of a uniformed officer. A perfect analogy is the medical doctor who is a general practitioner. He or she is expected to have a working knowledge of virtually every aspect of medicine and I expect accomplished officers to reflect the same knowledge base in their approach to policing as they “work traffic”. Below is a photograph of your’s truly and several zone officers at a DWI checkpoint in Lafayette County. It was years ago, but the memory is crystal clear and heart warming.
Traffic enforcement is one continuous opportunity to encounter mankind in all shapes and sizes. I am acquainted with troopers who have stopped vehicles driven by killers with their dead victim in the backseat. A classmate stopped a vehicle one evening and noticed a burlap bag, moving around on the rear floorboard and ended up arresting a miscreant with a bag full of not quite dead frogs, taken out of season. At a DWI roadblock, I encountered a car driven by a totally naked man, with his totally naked brand new wife sitting next to him (they has just gotten married). They were sent on their way, quite sober, with a story to tell for many years to come. I arrested a very large lady, who turned out to be a cross dressing man in full makeup, for stealing gas at a service station. He/she was testy, and attempted to cut me with a linoleum knife. It did not end well for him/her. Car thieves, homicide suspects and mass murderers have fallen to the alert traffic officer. The Oklahoma City bomber was arrested on a traffic stop. The beginning of the end of the American Mafia was the result of an alert traffic officer in upstate New York. A simple midnight traffic stop of a pickup truck within a few blocks of a Chevrolet Dealership netted me two tire thieves who had just removed 4 tires from a new car, prominently raised on cinder blocks above the other vehicles in line. They crossed the centerline, and then crossed paths with the county jail booking officer.
As I write, and recall the many sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic circumstances encountered while working the road, my blood pressure is rising and I am ready again to call in, announce my availability for duty, and hit the road. Those were wonderful days when you knew at shift’s end you had made a difference. Lost among all the glamour of policing, is the opportunity to help folks who desperately need your help. I never knowingly left a hungry child on a highway. Traffic officers also know where there are resources for virtually every conceivable circumstance from a vet to euthanize injured animals to a meal for a down and out family trying to drive cross country.
So it is that I end with a salute to the traffic officer. Done correctly, there is no more rewarding way to serve your political subdivision and the people you encounter. Often, when calling in service at 5:30 AM, I would rely on my mantra, “641 is 10-41, Lee’s Summit, on another glorious day to serve the people of Missouri”. I meant every word of it…..and still do.