D.C. police union also concerned about lax traffic enforcement

Delroy Burton, the head of the D.C. police union, on Thursday echoed concerns of Washington-area commuters and their advocates about the need for greater police enforcement of traffic laws— on everyone.

For years, the union has asked the city to reinstate the traffic division dismantled by former police chief Charles H. Ramsey, said Burton, chair of the executive committee of the Fraternal Order of Police.  The union also has raised concerns about lax enforcement with the city, he said, but nothing has been done to address them.

As tensions have escalated among D.C. road users, some people say police enforcement of traffic rules has lagged. More pedestrians and bicyclists are now sharing the road with motorists, something that transportation advocates say calls for increased policing on the roads and new strategies to deal with a rising number of collisions involving people on foot and on two-wheels. Some road users say they are frustrated by the lack of equitable enforcement and the District police department’s  dependence on cameras for traffic enforcement.

Police officers too are frustrated, said Burton, who took office in April. The problem he said, is simply that the department is short staffed.  The department’s policy is that all officers are responsible for enforcing traffic laws, but Burton said the reality is they have to focus on bigger problems.

“Yes, it is everybody’s responsibility, but if I am running all day going from call to call to call, I don’t have time to pay attention to the guy speeding through the school zone or not yielding in the crosswalk,” he said.  “We have good automated enforcement, but you can’t enforce (violations by) bicyclist and pedestrians with cameras. You have to have dedicated resources and police on the ground to go out there and do the enforcement.”

That will come only with city making an investment in a traffic division, he said. Some transportation advocates also have called for a traffic division. A D.C. police spokeswoman said last week that a centralized unit dedicated solely to enforcement would not be enough to address traffic safety citywide. Despite complaints from drivers, pedestrians and cyclists about lax enforcement, police say they have adequate resources dedicated to making sure the roads stay safe.

Burton’s predecessor, Kristopher Baumann, who led the union for 8 years, said traffic enforcement was a concern during his tenure too and the union repeatedly raised the issue with city officials to no avail.

“One of the problems that is going to exacerbate this situation is the rising population,” Baumann said. “More people, less enforcement, more people becoming angry – not a good plan.”

Since 2010, the District has gained about 45,000 residents, with the population now more than 646,000, according to census figures.

“We constantly have car drivers complaining bikers and pedestrians are a menace, we have bikers complaining drivers and pedestrians are a menace, and we have pedestrians complaining drivers and bikers are a menace, and they are all correct,” Baumann said. “But it is only a certain percentage of each group that is the problem and it should be the responsibility of the police to make sure those folks understand that there will be consequences for endangering others. Right now, there are not.”

Police enforcement generally focuses on vehicle traffic and some union leaders say officers don’t have the tools they need for proper enforcement of the rules for pedestrians and cyclists.

Right now, a pedestrian who ignores a “don’t walk” sign and impedes vehicles is subject to a $10 ticket; a driver who fails to yield to pedestrians can get a $250 ticket.  Infractions by cyclists usually carry a $25 fine.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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