Watch out, there’s a new cop car in town.
A three-man HEAT crew, driving blue cars instead of the normal silver and black, will start patrolling this week with a primary focus on traffic enforcement.
The sheriff’s office received a three-year $625,000 HEAT, or Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic, grant from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety because of the number of fatal crashes in the county. Fatalities doubled in 2011 to 32 and then increased again in 2012 by 37 percent, and these programs have proven to be effective in preventing traffic-related deaths.
Operation Thunder, also funded by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, was credited with lowering the number of fatalities to 25 last year. So far this year, three people have died in traffic crashes compared to six this time last year.
“There’s no question that people’s behavior has changed,” said Lt. Lewis Blanchard. Police hope the HEAT’s efforts will further reduce numbers and “make people think” when getting behind the wheel.
The grant provides $250,000 for the first year, which includes three new, fully-equipped Dodge Chargers and the salaries for two of the three officers. The sheriff’s office pays the salary of the third. The rest of the money will be used the remaining two years.
The officers – Deputies Cam Darling and Albert Parrish and Cpl. Brandon Reeves – were already employed by the sheriff’s office and have advanced training in field sobriety, DUI, drug recognition, child seat safety inspections and other areas. Darling was recently named Officer of the Year through MADD for 302 DUI arrests he made in 2013. Blanchard said regular deputies make five to 10 a year and those dedicated to DUI average 200.
The officers, equipped with body cameras, are required to spend 97 percent of their time on traffic enforcement, but do not have a ticket or warning quota. Importance is placed on making contact and correcting
behaviors than fines and fees.
“It’s always up the officer’s discretion (to write a ticket),” Blanchard said.
One officer will be assigned to a mid-shift, and two officers will be on the late shift which runs from 6 p.m. to around 5 a.m.
“The majority of our crashes occur late in the evening,” Sgt. Danny Whitehead said. “People are on the way home then they go change and go on to dinner so there are more people on the roads at one time.”
This is the third time the sheriff’s office has been approved for the grant. It ran most recently from 2006 to 2009. After three years, the sheriff’s office can reapply for the program.
The three new cars are in the final stages of preparation and are expected to be released to the sheriff’s office on Monday.
Blanchard said the goal was to get the cars ready before Masters Week to help with the influx in traffic.