Suppressing Speeds: Breckenridge police say it’s not all about tickets
November 18, 2017
Breckenridge Police Sgt. Patrick Finley approaches a newer-model silver Ford pickup truck he's just stopped for going 66 mph in a 50-mile-an-hour zone.
The pickup's windows are heavily tinted, snow has just started falling across Summit County and getting any kind of read on who's inside is virtually impossible. Happy as he is to get out of the office for a citizen's ride-along Friday morning, the veteran police officer with 14 years of experience remains cautious in the moment.
Even before the stop, Finley was careful.
He was careful to ensure his radar was working properly, thumping two tuning forks in turn, one set to a 35-mph hum and another that sings at 50 mph.
He was careful to pull off in just the right spot — one of his favorites to catch speeders — on a flat tuft of loose gravel over the curb and off the side of Highway 9, far enough out of the way, just north of town.
And he was careful to pull out safely but fast in his police SUV as the speeding pickup zipped past him in the left lane headed toward Frisco.
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After stopping the pickup, Finley calls in the plates and walks up on the vehicle. As he comes to the tailgate, he extends his right arm, touching the taillight for a second before proceeding even more slowly to the driver-side window.
It's hard to tell exactly what's being said, but the mood quickly lightens. Finley smiles. He even laughs a little, before taking something from the driver and returning to his marked police SUV.
"So how many people are in that car?" Finley asks.
Thinking I see two figures moving, I respond with my best guess.
"Anything else?" Finley probes before running the man's license and telling dispatch he's in good shape.
"What should I be seeing?" I ask.
"You're seeing what I'm seeing," Finley continued. "You have no clue what's in that truck. I don't know if you saw me put my hand on the tailgate, but I'm getting my fingerprints on that car so if that guy shoots me and drives off, they know that's my fingerprint and I'm tied to that vehicle."
This time, Finley is convinced the driver only needs a warning, and he lets the man in his mid-50s off without a ticket, the fine for which would have been $125.
"They're super nice," Finley said of the two men in the pickup, adding they have a dog in there with them and told him they had just been talking about speed limits in Breckenridge before they got pulled over.
"They're headed over to the high school to pick up his daughter," Finley said.
Breckenridge police readily admit that, over a three-month period this summer, they didn't write a single speeding ticket on French Gulch Road, a through road that feeds into a cluster of home.
The lack of tickets on that stretch might suggest a gap in enforcement, but Finley says measuring police work isn't always about the number of tickets the department writes.
"It's not as easy as you think," he said. "You can't just go out and write everybody tickets."
The Friday morning ride-along followed an informal survey conducted by the Summit Daily News last month, in which the newspaper found as many as four out of five drivers were exceeding the speed limits on two main roads — French Street and French Gulch Road — through residential neighborhoods.
It should be noted that just over half of the vehicles observed weren't speeding too egregiously — going less than 5 mph over the limit — but more concerning were the six cars clocked going 10 mph or more over the posted 25 mph speed limit on on just French Gulch Road during the one-hour survey window.
The newspaper's informal survey came from the idea of a concerned citizen, whose dog was hit and killed by a town bus Aug. 9, on French Gulch Road.
The woman brought the issue before town council at its Aug. 22 meeting before asking if there is something that can be done to suppress the high rate of speeds she's seeing in her neighborhood.
The woman went so far as to camp out next to the speed-limit sign equipped with a radar display on French Gulch Road. Based on the readings she saw the sign relaying back to drivers, the woman produced some startling figures from her observations for council to consider.
Her efforts prompted the newspaper survey, which came at about the same time Breckenridge police were beginning to conduct their own traffic study in the area.
"We had a lady come to council (Aug. 22) whose dog was hit by Little Red (Schoolhouse)," reads a departmentwide email sent out by interim police chief Nicola Erb in late September. "… can you step up some enforcement there to reinforce our area?"
Officer Bryan Ridge replied to the email Oct. 1, saying that Breckenridge officers were studying speeds on French Gulch Road and, over the course of 45 minutes starting at 8 a.m. that same day, he clocked 19 vehicles at an average speed of 28.5 mph.
That figure was closely in line — only 1 mph less — with the average speed of the 38 vehicles on French Gulch Road recorded by the Summit Daily. Additionally, Ridge wrote, one driver was going 39 mph but quickly dropped to 35 mph after seeing Ridge's marked police cruiser, which Finley said is another problem police have with enforcing traffic violations, that drivers change their behaviors after simply seeing an officer in the area.
Fines or finess
According to statistics provided by the police department upon the newspaper's request, Breckenridge officers wrote 112 speeding tickets from June through August this summer, but none of those were issued to drivers on French Gulch Road.
That equates to just over one ticket a day during that time frame, and according to Finley, if the police department were a business, they'd go broke.
"The police department is not a money-making machine," he said matter-of-factly.
Officers have no quotas, Finley added, and for him, it's far more important to focus on "community policing" than blanketing Breckenridge with fines.
For Finley, that means being a part of the community, creating positive interactions and letting locals know they have a department that listens to their concerns as much as it aims to enforce violations.
Truth be told, Breckenridge police could write about as many tickets as they want on any given day. The department usually has two to three officers on duty at any given time, Finley said, and in just over an hour with him Friday, violations were witnessed — everything from speeding to people running stop signs — though most weren't serious enough to warrant a stop.
"When people fly past me doing 30 mph (in a 20 mph zone)," he said clocking cars on Main Street in town. "Those are the people I need to talk to."
Riding with the sergeant
Finley started the Friday morning ride-along on Main Street, where he ticketed a young female driver last Sunday for passing a trolley on a double yellow line.
That same day, Finley made three other stops, including one for speeding 11 mph over on North Main Street and another for rolling through the stop sign at Airport Road and Valley Brook Street. Neither of those drivers got citations, he said.
Interestingly, after clocking about a dozen speeders on Main Street by the fire station and pulling one driver over on Highway 9 just outside of town on Friday, none of the 10 cars Finley clocked on French Gulch Road were going more than 27 mph in the 25-mile-an-hour zone.
Locals and guests
When it comes to speeding, Breckenridge police can generally put drivers into one of two categories: people who live here and those who don't.
Each group presents its own challenges, Erb said, and the last thing police want to do is get a reputation for ticketing tourists, which can be off-putting for the town as a whole.
As for locals, Finley noted that many of the same people who complain about speeding in Breckenridge are the ones he's stopped.
"It's a lot of the citizens who are out there speeding," Finley said of his experience, adding that writing locals tickets can sour their relationship with the police department and is best avoided, if possible.
To Erb, law enforcement is "all about amending the behavior," and for some people, just getting pulled over "is so traumatic" she knows that "they're never going to speed in town again."
"Other people can be blasé about it, like it's no big deal," she said, "and you know then that needs to go another step."
What's speeding, really?
Finley nor Erb agree speeding at 1-4 mph over the limit is a violation of the law, but ask either of them what's the fine for it and they don't know.
"Yeah, you don't see anything on there so it doesn't look like it, does it?" Erb said. "You're right, though. We're not really going to stop someone for 1-2 mph over."
That's because no box exists for Breckenridge police to check off for such an infraction on the carbon-copy forms they use to write tickets.
The fines for speeding start at $70 for 5-9 mph over and progressively increase until they reach $200 for a violation of 20-24 mph over.
That's not to say a driver can't be stopped for going 1-4 mph over the limit, and Finley recalled pulling over a driver one time who was only a couple miles per hour over the speed limit.
As a qualifier, Finley said that stop was part of a zero-tolerance Click It Or Ticket campaign, and he could tell the driver also wasn't wearing a seatbelt, which isn't a primary violation for which a driver can be stopped in Colorado.
Long story short, Finley said, he wrote a seatbelt ticket and gave the driver a warning for speeding.
One happy customer
Erb said that when the department's enforcement is lacking in some areas, many times, members of the public reach out to the department.
That's feedback the department welcomes, and to illustrate this, Erb produced a letter from Karen Warrick, who lives on South French Street.
Reached over the phone, Warrick confirmed the letter and said that letters she and her husband wrote to the department in August 2016 and 2017 were not only heard by department officials but apparently had some effect.
"They responded every time we sent information in," Warrick said. "(The department) didn't always promise to do what we wanted, but they've certainly tried and they've come up with a solution we think everyone can live with."
The solution to which Warrick was referring is another speed limit sign equipped with radar.
"We appreciate the personal contact from the police department following each letter," Warrick wrote to then-police chief Dennis McLaughlin and Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula. "Now we would like to say thank you for listening to our concerns and taking effective action."
Erb said she encourages residents to reach out to the police department and let its officers know where the problem areas are.
Police might not always know of a specific problem in any given area, Erb continued, and when citizens reach out to them, she said they take those concerns seriously.
Putting brakes on Breck
Breckenridge police are tasked with a long list of jobs, from traffic enforcement to in-school education programs all the way to major investigations, but Finley and Erb both say that speed control is one of the department's top priorities.
"You start with the speed and that's going to keep everybody safe," Finley said. "You can't have people flying through town so that's a pretty high priority for us."
"Especially Main Street, where we have so many guests," Erb added.
She said the department's efforts are focused on "education, prevention and enforcement." Signage can play a role, she agreed, though there is already one posted on French Gulch Road.
Other police departments across the country have put ghost cars into play, where an empty police car is parked in a problem area knowing that the sight of it will have an effect.
Finley remembers having ghost cars where he previously worked, and parking the "ghost squad," as they called it, in a different place everyday. However, he said Breckenridge doesn't have the cars right now for something like that here.
Rather, according to Erb and Finley, the single biggest force that drives speeds down is other traffic, and because of that, everyone can play a role in helping keep Breckenridge safe.
"Everyone who is driving around in a work capacity, whether it's the patrol officers, the hotel shuttles, the Uber drivers and those locals," Erb said, "if we all stick to the speed limit, we can set the tone."
Finley has noticed the same thing too.
"The other people help me slow down traffic on their own," he said, "and they don't even know it."