Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today I got my green (okay, well blue and gray) on with the Fairfax County Police during week two of Citizens Police Academy. This week the focus was on the Traffic Division and Dispatch.
You’d think sitting in a classroom for three hours listening to lectures would be boring. Far from it! We had great speakers today.
First up was the commander of Investigations, which includes Helicopter, Special Ops (SWAT), Traffic, Major Crimes, Organized Crime, and Victim Services. She’s the lady in charge of the units with all of the toys. We’ll get to visit some of the other units later, but today’s first focus was on Traffic.
Traffic encompasses a whole host of units I’d never even thought about, including…
- Motor Squad: motorcycle cops—more on them in a second
- Motor Carrier Safety: inspect commercial vehicles for safety
- This unit takes about 1500 trucks off the Fairfax County roads every year due to unsafe conditions.
- Unlike patrol cars, they can stop any truck for any reason to inspect.
- Crash Reconstruction Unit: investigates fatal and life-threatening crashes.
- Traffic Safety: mostly education programs on seat belts, child safety seats, and stings to catch businesses selling alcohol to those under 21, or to people buying alcohol for them
A motor officer (motorcycle officer) came next. He gave us the lowdown about life on the bike. And if the weather is too scary for a bike (black ice, snow) they go undercover in unmarked, ordinary cars like mustangs, trucks, and so on. The difference between a patrol officer (who falls under a completely different division) and a motor officer is that a patrol officer's main focus is responding to calls. Traffic stops are something they do when they have down time.
A motor officer’s sole focus is traffic violations. They only respond to calls in extreme cases where patrol needs all the hands it can get. Also, unlike patrol, motor officers aren’t assigned to a district station.* They can go anywhere in the county, and are on the clock as soon as they cross into the county. (Or leave their driveway if they live here.)
The way our super-friendly officer described it, their job is not to decide if what you did was okay under the circumstances (say speeding to get to the hospital). Their job is to get you to a court where the judge can decide if you deserve leniency. So pretty much regardless of your sob story, you’ll likely get a ticket.
But, mainly, he’s looking for people acting out of the norm. Changing lanes constantly, tailgating, weaving. In our county, they use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging—lasers) rather than RADAR. It’s point and shoot and picks up only the car in the viewfinder. Much harder to fight in court.
Finally, we got a brief overview from the assistant supervisor of the dispatch unit. In our county there is one central dispatch center for all emergency and non-emergency calls, as well as the department of transportation. They have a huge room with traffic screens on the wall showing different stretches of freeway. From here, VDOT can program the traffic signs with warnings of accidents and slowdowns.
The #1 thing you need to give to the 911 operator is your location. The other #1 thing you need to know is not to call 911 unless it’s really an emergency. Life and death, people. Or limb or vision, but you get the idea…
*Obviously, all of this applies specifically to Fairfax County and may be different where you live.