On a bright and beautiful recent morning, Luis Rubalcaba drove his burgundy Ford Taurus southbound on Hendricks Street in Merrillville.
With an empty field on his left and houses scattered on his right, the Highland man didn’t think twice as he cruised past a 2006 black Ford Mustang at 47 mph.
That turned out to be a mistake. And Cpl. Barry Clanton, the supervisor of the Merrill-ville Police Department’s traffic division, made him pay for it.
With Rubalcaba’s eyes opened wide in disbelief at the sound of a siren emerging from the Mustang, Clanton flipped on the lights, turned the unmarked car around and issued Rubalcaba a ticket for driving 17 mph over the posted limit.
It could have happened anywhere police use stealth and cunning to control speeders.
Valparaiso’s Police Chief, Mike Brickner said its force tries to balance visibility and deterrence against simply trying to catch speeders.
While the town has four Ford Crown Victorias that are unmarked, he said he wouldn’t mind something a little more sporty on the streets.
“It’d be cool to get a Mustang,” Brickner said.
Last year alone, Clanton wrote 1,253 tickets. Most people never saw him coming, he said.
Merrillville’s first unmarked car — a Chevrolet Camaro — hit the streets in August 2002.
The idea stemmed from the Indiana State Police’s stealth program, Chief of Police Nicholas Bravos said.
Why? Because it works
Indiana State Police Sgt. Richard Broughton of the Lowell post said unmarked cars have been part of the protocol at the state level for a long time.
“We’ve been using them for years,” Broughton said of the seven unmarked Ford Crown Victorias this district uses. “They are mainly used for traffic stops because they are harder to detect.”
In all, ISP has 94 unmarked cars in use — about 1 per county, 1st Sgt. Dave Bursten said from headquarters in Indianapolis.
Trooper Daniel Becker of the Lowell post said he used unmarked cars while patrolling in Porter County and that they’re beneficial as an aid to deter speeders.
“When I worked in Kouts, we used town trucks as police cars and every time someone would see the town truck they would slow down,” Becker said. “The Crown Vics assist in this way, too. People aren’t sure if they are police cars or not.”
Expect the unexpected
Clanton said the point of the unmarked Mustang is to catch people who are on the prowl for regular police vehicles.
“A lot of folks are looking for a black and white police car,” Clanton said. “But when you see a car like the Mustang, a lot of folks don’t have a tendency to think it’s a police car, and they commit the violation.”
ISP’s Bursten agreed.
“People act differently when they see a marked police car,” he said.
That could be the reason why officers in unmarked police cars write more tickets than those in the decaled cruisers.
Broughton said ISP troopers in unmarked cars write on average of 30 to 40 more tickets per month than a regular patrol car. Becker said the Portage and Chesterton area along Interstates 80/94 are particular fruitful spots where troopers make frequent stops for speeding — “just because there is so much traffic,” he said.
In Merrillville, the second most prolific speeding ticket writer wrote 724 tickets last year, compared to Clanton’s 1,253. Close behind were the traffic enforcement division’s unmarked Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders, who wrote nearly 2,000 tickets between the two of them.
Besides stopping traffic violators, Clanton also uses the Mustang to enforce the click-it-or-ticket program and catch drunken drivers.
“I get quite a few DUIs,” Clanton said. “And when people see a marked police car they try to straighten up and not weave or cross the center line. With an unmarked car I can get behind the vehicle and do a surveillance on it before I stop it.”
Clanton once saw his subject drinking a beer while driving.
“He handed it to me while he searched for his license and registration,” Clanton said. The man was arrested.
With a holiday weekend looming, Clanton advised people driving in Merrillville:
“I will be out,” he said deliberately with a chuckle. “Drunk drivers and traffic violators, beware.”
Like Rubalcaba, Jose Benavente of Merrillville is now aware. Stopped after Rubalcaba for going 55 mph in the same 30 mph zone on Hendricks, Benavente said, “I didn’t see him coming. I haven’t seen that car yet. It’s pretty nice though.”
And so is Clanton. Besides leading the force in tickets written, he also tries to educate violators so they don’t make the same mistake twice.
“I try to educate because I want to help them, also,” he said.
Maybe that was the reason Rubalcaba shook Clanton’s hand as he drove away.
Staff writer Tom Wyatt contributed to this story. Contact Jamie Ward at 648-3107 or firstname.lastname@example.org