Incognito Chicago cops go for speeders
By Carolyn Rusin
CHICAGO, Ill. — The guy on a riding mower in the median of busy Arlington Heights Road looked like a Buffalo Grove Public Works Department employee, except he wasn't cutting the grass.
"We have two schools on this road, a grade school and middle school. Both of the schools have summer activities with kids," said Kristiansen, who wore an orange T-shirt underneath a safety vest, blue jeans and gym shoes as he aimed his gun at the unwary.
In a new twist on the cat-and-mouse game between cops and speeders, some suburban Chicago police departments are going undercover, donning disguises as part of their traffic-enforcement safety efforts. Officers have dressed up as curbside solicitors, construction workers and even set up a lawn chair next to a cooler, where they reach for a radar gun instead of a cold one.
The results can be impressive, police said. During the recent mowing subterfuge in Buffalo Grove, 30 citations and at least one warning were issued in 90 minutes.
Last year, the number of crashes dropped to a 16-year low in the northwest suburb, according to Kristiansen, who said the stealth operation has been a summer component of the village's traffic safety program for the last four years.
Weather permitting, police will be out again Thursday and Friday impersonating workers in a construction zone.
"It's about saving lives and reducing crashes," Kristiansen said as he wielded his radar gun on the 35 m.p.h. street. "We want people wondering if the person is a police officer. Then they will tell their friend, who will tell another friend, and that accomplishes our goal."
Not all police departments have taken up disguises. In Naperville, for example, only traditional methods are used for traffic enforcement, officials said.
The same goes for the Chicago Police Department. "I've never heard of such a thing," said Sgt. Paulette Norwood of the traffic enforcement section. "It's interesting."
In the lawn mower sting in Buffalo Grove, Kristiansen radioed speeds and vehicle descriptions to a uniformed officer standing next to a stoplight and to a police motorcycle about a block away. The officer stopped the motorists and directed them onto nearby Nicholas Drive, where five marked squads with flashing lights waited, along with six officers.
"For as many officers you see, there are as many speeders," said Cpl. Brian Spolar. "We actually ran out of officers because of all the tickets we have been giving."
People were routinely exceeding the speed limit by 15 to 20 m.p.h., said Spolar, adding that fines start at $75. Motorists who were pulled over also were checked for the use of seat belts and child restraints.
Buffalo Grove resident Stacey McIntyre, 30, said she never gave the man on a mower a second thought. She was ticketed for going 11 m.p.h. over the limit.
"I don't think that's fair," she said. "It's not right. Cops shouldn't be in disguises."
Suzanne Singson, 41, of Buffalo Grove said she was traveling in a pack of about six vehicles when the officer at the light directed everyone to stop.
Singson, who said she was late for a doctor's appointment, was given a warning for traveling 46 m.p.h. She said was unaware she had been clocked by an officer in disguise.
"I was trying to figure out, how did they catch me?" she said. "Now I'm thinking of the Big Brother thing and everyone's watching."
Police also are on the lookout for drivers who run red lights and stop signs. For that task, officers have assumed the can-in-hand look of a curbside solicitor, Kristiansen said. The intersection of Illinois Highway 83 and Arlington Heights Road is a focal point because it is considered one of the worst for accidents, he said.
If motorists attempt to donate money, officers identify themselves and their objective.
"We want people to obey the law whether police are there or not," Kristiansen said. "We are looking for voluntary compliance to reduce our crash rates in town."
Aurora police use similar tactics, though not to nab speeders.
"We'll put officers in plainclothes to sit on someone's porch or on a street corner" to enforce a city ordinance that targets loud music coming from cars, said Deputy Police Chief Greg Anderson.
Illinois State Police equipped with laser radar guns dress as workers once or twice a month to ticket speeders in construction zones on tollways, said Master Sgt. Luis Gutierrez.
The traffic program, called Operation Hard Hat, was started in 2005 to reduce fatalities in construction zones, Gutierrez said.
There were 44 such fatalities, five of them construction workers, in the state in 2003, compared with 28 fatalities, including one worker, last year, he said.
In Schaumburg, an off-duty officer in shorts, T-shirt and a baseball cap occasionally sits in a lawn chair next to a cooler along Golf and Higgins Roads. A radar gun is within easy reach.
"It seems, so far, like it's working pretty well," said Cmdr. Paul Rizzo. "We want people to slow down because we don't like handling the crashes."
But in nearby Hoffman Estates, police favor the use of unmarked cars and steer clear of using disguises, said Traffic Sgt. Carl Baumert.
"We are not utility workers. We don't use those types of tactics," Baumert said. "There's enough speeding violations and other traffic violations that keep us busy."
Copyright 2007 The Chicago Tribune
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