Village Police Defend Traffic Policies
The Pinehurst Police Department has been the target of complaints that its approach to traffic enforcement has hurt business and given the village an unfavorable reputation.
But the allegations seem to have declined in the past couple of years. And Capt. Floyd Thomas vehemently denies that the department is too zealous in enforcing laws — and especially that its officers lie in wait to entrap drunken drivers.
Dan Berry, former owner of the Magnolia Inn, has frequently criticized actions of village police in the past.
“Even before the economy turned south,” he said, “the biggest negative surrounding the village was the police activity. It was like entrapment. The problem is, the perception by a lot of customers is that they were being targeted.”
Berry owned the Magnolia Inn from April 2006 to February of this year. He said the constant police presence and the frequent stopping of guests by officers eroded his business.
“On a Friday or Saturday night,” he said, “people would come in the Magnolia Inn, and outside the police would circle the wagons, so to speak, and you’d have to figure out how to escape Alcatraz. It made a difference, a significant impact. ... It could be Game 7 of the World Series, and people would be talking about the police. It got to the point where I was managing against it.”
Berry said the problems were at their worst in 2008 and into 2009, after which they declined sharply.
“The last year and a half, the police have been fine, but the reputation has lingered,” he said. “That reputation might take a few more years to wear off.”
Responding to what he called unfair rumors and allegations, Thomas countered that his department receives daily complaints from Pinehurst residents who call to demand that something be done about speeders or drivers running stop signs. Asked if he thought the department was getting a bum rap, he replied, “I do. I honestly do.”
The full text of The Pilot’s interview with Thomas appears on page B1 of today’s Pilot.
During a period of nearly five years from June 1, 2006, to April 31, 2011, Pinehurst police issued 18,226 citations. About a third, or 6,045, were for speeding. Less than 3 percent were for driving while impaired. The department issued 485 DWI arrests/citations over that period. That is 8.4 per month, or about two per weekend.
During the same period, Aberdeen reported 555 DWI citations, and Southern Pines had 454.
Last year, the Pinehurst Police Department reported 100 DWIs. There were 99 in 2009 and 122 in 2008.
During the period examined by The Pilot, the number of DWIs in Pinehurst ranked behind expired registration (1,382), inspection violation (1,015), seat belt violations (896), no driver’s license (700), driving while license revoked (713), unsafe movement (625) and no insurance (520).
Aberdeen recorded 27,400 traffic enforcement actions during the same period. Of those, 8,136, or nearly 30 percent, were for speeding. In Southern Pines, police recorded 16,635 total stops during that time frame.
Southern Pines attorney Arthur Donadio said Pinehurst is not overly represented on the court docket when it comes to DWIs. But he added, “It seems Pinehurst has a reputation for a particular style of enforcement. I’d say that makes local folks nervous.”
Donadio also said he has spoken to people in other resort areas like Hilton Head, S.C., and people there have told him they have heard about Pinehurst’s reputation.
“It’s starting to get around among corporate retreat planners that (the) Pinehurst (police) have a reputation of picking off low-hanging fruit when you go down there to play golf,” he said.
Lying in Wait?
Still some believe Pinehurst officers park near local restaurants and bars at night and wait for patrons to leave those establishmentsso they can pull them over as they drive home.
“They (Pinehurst police officers) do everything they can to get you,” said Steve Pattison, owner of the The Darling House Pub.
Pattison, who got a DWI last year and currently lacks a driver’s license, said his customers and employees — some of whom don’t drink — have been followed to their homes from the restaurant, which is located downtown.
“They are waiting for you to make that one mistake,” he said.
It is an assertion that Thomas flatly denies.
“We’ve specifically told the officers not to do that,” he said, when asked whether his officers park near restaurants and wait for customers to leave. He said officers routinely patrol the downtown area, and in the early morning hours, officers get out of their cars and check to make sure business doors are secured. He said officers do park their squad cars when they conduct foot patrols.
But Donadio said Pinehurst’s aggressive policy creates anxiety within the village.
“You will always have a tension in a place like Pinehurst that bills itself as a resort destination, between wanting to be welcoming and having a vigorous enforcement policy,” he said.
Pattison said he met with police and village officials about a year and a half ago to voice his concern. He said things improved for a few months but then returned to the way they had been.
Bobby Cary, general manager of the Hickory Tavern in Southern Pines, said he is aware of Pinehurst’s reputation.
“The consensus is this (Pinehurst) is the town that’s not one for drinking and driving, which isn’t a bad thing,” Cary said.
He said his restaurant has a list of area taxis that employees call when they feel a patron needs a ride home if he or she has had too much to drink. They will even pay for the ride if the patron cannot.
“We want our customers to come back,” he said.
Many residents say they are wary of having even one drink and then driving through Pinehurst.
“I know the reputation,” said Ashley Molloy. “If I have a drink, I don’t drive.”
Molloy, a Pinehurst resident, said a DWI would cause her to lose her job.
“There have been times when I have walked home from the Pine Crest (Inn),” she said.
In a drinking-and-driving case, impairment is determined by the concentration of alcohol in the blood, or BAC. For instance, a BAC of 0.10 means one-tenth of 1 percent of a person’s blood is alcohol.
For drivers at or above the legal drinking age of 21, a BAC of .08 is considered legally impaired. It is illegal for any persons under age 21 to have any alcohol in their system and drive a vehicle.
Donadio said newcomers or visitors learn pretty quickly that North Carolina’s DWI laws are tougher than those in a lot of states.
He said more people are being nabbed for DWI as the impairment threshold decreases and law-enforcement efforts to prevent impaired driving increase.
Thomas said the department doesn’t keep records on the average BAC for those charged with DWI, but he estimated it to be between .10 and .15.
Processing a DWI from the initial stop through its completion can be lengthy.
“An average (DWI) stop takes about two hours,” Thomas said.
That time frame is typical for other departments as well.
When a vehicle is stopped and a driver is suspected of being impaired, officers put him or her through a series of roadside tests to assess the driver’s condition.
Officers most commonly administer three tests. In one, the individuals are instructed to walk a straight line by placing one foot in front of another in a heel-to-toe fashion. They are instructed to count their steps aloud and keep their hands by their sides, not using them to balance themselves.
Another test involves balance. Individuals are asked to stand with their feet together and then lift one foot six inches off the ground, balancing on the other
Most nonimpaired individuals with no confining health issues should be able to balance on one foot for at least 30 seconds, said Pinehurst Master Patrol Officer Joseph Whitlock.
The third test is an eye check, in which the officer stands in front of the subject and asks him or her to follow the officer’s finger or an object such as a pen, without moving the head.
Other tests can be administered. Whitlock said he will ask individuals to recite the alphabet.
“A nonimpaired driver should easily be able to recite their ABCs,” he said.
Drivers suspected of being impaired are taken to have their BAC tested. They can have their blood tested at the hospital, or they can blow into an Intoximeter that measures the level.
By law, the individual is allowed to call a witness for the test. The witness has 30 minutes to arrive before the test is administered. The test is given twice, with the lower number being official.
After the test is completed, the individual is taken before a magistrate.
During a recent ride-along with a Pinehurst police officer, one driver was stopped after his truck twice crossed the center line on N.C. 5. The male driver was stopped at just after 1:10 a.m. He was given a field sobriety test, and it was determined that he was impaired. He was transported back to the station, where he was read his rights, given the chance to call a witness and given a chance to submit to an intoximeter breath test or a blood test.
The driver chose the breath test.
It took nearly two hours before the driver was transported to the magistrate’s office in Carthage to be charged.
Master Patrol Officer Todd Manness handled that one incident for more than two hours.
“When I get back (from the magistrate’s office), I’ll have another two hours worth of paperwork to fill out,” he said. “It’s a complicated process.”
In Pinehurst, officers work 12-hour shifts from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. During each shift, a team of officers patrols the roads. The team, when fully operational, consists of three patrol officers, a sergeantand a lieutenant. Teams patrol three different zones within the village. One officer patrols one of the three zones, while the supervisors “float” through zones.
If an officer is off for training, one of the superiors will slide into the vacant zone, leaving just one higher-ranking officer to patrol and support.
In addition, the officers utilize a portable traffic speed trailer that is placed at different locations around the village. Often it is set up when residents request it because they say drivers are speeding through the neighborhood.
Officers estimate they drive between 50 and 100 miles during day shift and more during the night.
Thomas has said he encourages his officers to enforce traffic laws “aggressively.”
“What I mean by aggressive is, if the officer sees a traffic violation and they can safely stop the vehicle, they should,” he said. “If they don’t have a pending call to go to, they should safely stop the vehicle. Now it’s up to the officer to determine whether they give a written warning or a verbal warning or if they actually issue a citation.”
Thomas said there is no edict from him or Police Chief Ronnie Davis that says officers have to write a certain number of tickets.
Officers say their job is to influence behavior, especially actions that can be deemed unsafe. That, they say, can be done in a variety of ways, including issuing citations or verbal warnings.
“If you know a verbal warning will do the job just as well as a citation to get them to slow down, then there’s not anything wrong with that,” Maness said.
Just driving around and being seen can cause residents to change behavior, officers said.
Maness has been with the department nearly five years. In that time, he said, he has heard plenty of excuses and stories by motorists trying to get out of tickets.
“Truthfully, honesty is the best way to go,” he said.
Squad cars are equipped with video cameras that record incidents. Those cameras are automatically activated when an officer turns on his lights.
Thomas said that when a person lodges a complaint, the video of the incident is reviewed.
Lt. Ricky Gooch, who has been on the force for 20 years, believes some of the perceived problems that residents have with the department arise because some people just don’t like being told what to do.
He said officers are taught to be respectful in dealing with the public. He said some officers are friendly, while others are more matter-of-fact, but that some people get upset no matter what.
“Some folks aren’t going to be happy no matter how you talk to them,” he said.
Or as Maness puts it, “‘Your officer gave me a ticket, and that’s not cool.’ That’s what it boils down to.”
Contact Tom Embrey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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