Cops cracking down on speeding
After a spike in traffic fatalities, the city's policing unit has come down hard on speeding motorists. Officers have handed out tickets at such a pace that one website warns drivers about the city's numerous speed traps.
BY LAURA FIGUEROA
These days, no one seems to be exempt from the watchful eye of the radar-wielding Doral Traffic Enforcement team.
Not even a county garbage truck driver, about to make his last rounds for the day.
''Make way,'' Ofc. Chris Sanchez tells his colleague Ofc. Joseph Azrak one recent afternoon.
The two planted themselves at the intersection of Northwest 58th Street and 97th Avenue for a routine traffic check, when Sanchez spots a garbage truck traveling 50 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone.
Sanchez signals the driver to move into the parking lot of Miami-Dade Fire Station No. 45.
''What's should I put down for the make and model?'' Sanchez asks Azrak, half-joking, half-serious.
After all, these two and the rest of the eight member team take their job seriously -- very seriously.
By year's end, Doral's Policing Unit will have handed out more than 35,000 traffic tickets. In August, the unit formed the Traffic Enforcement team comprising three officers and a sergeant for each of two shifts in the morning and the afternoon.
Even so, the city has experienced six traffic-related deaths in 2006 -- three more than the previous year. Four of the deaths took place after the enforcement team was created.
''In spite of everything we've done, we've had the most number of traffic fatalities that we've ever had,'' Gomez said. ``I shudder to think what would have happened if we hadn't done anything. It boggles the mind the amount of traffic that we have through the city.''
With Doral located near the Florida's Turnpike, the Palmetto Expressway and Miami International Airport, the City Council asked the policing unit to find solutions to the resulting traffic woes.
''From our perspective, we wanted to see more done,'' said Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez. ``We've seen more people die from traffic accidents than from homicides.''
To send the message home to drivers about Doral's ''zero tolerance'' towards traffic violations, the city counts on officers such as Azrak and Sanchez to round up and write up speeding motorists.
Nearly 10 percent of the 35,000 traffic tickets were handed out by Azrak, who has a reputation among motorists and colleagues alike for being a little too good at his job: By this month, he has already issued more than 4,000 tickets.
''You're Officer Azrak?'' one disgruntled man sitting in a Burgundy Lexus asks the officer after getting a citation for speeding.
''Have I given you a ticket before?'' Azrak asks.
The man said no but that he had heard of the officer.
Thanks to websites such as Speedtrap.org, where drivers can warn others about areas where they should stick to the speed limit, word of Doral's no-tolerance policy is spreading.
''There is a motorcycle officer that hides under a tree and jumps out of no where like a robot,'' one motorist warns on the website. ``He is very stealth, making it difficult to detect him.''
Another motorist warns drivers to stay clear of Northwest 12th Street and 97th Avenue: ``The officer is hiding behind a green electrical box but you can see his head because he is tall. The officer that jumps out is short but rock solid.''
Gomez said his officers view the comments on Speedtrap.org as a sort of merit badge they sometimes wish they could wear.
Azrak recalls Doral's first listing on the site in February 2005, warning drivers not to exceed the speed limit on Northwest 41st Street from 107th Avenue west to the turnpike.
''I used to run my shift up and down that area,'' Azrak proudly points out.
''You don't get on a website like that by just writing one or two tickets,'' he said.
If he were to write only one or two tickets a day, Azrak wouldn't feel he was doing his job. Four minutes into a recent afternoon shift, he has already handed one unlucky driver a $198.50 speeding ticket and is eyeing another from his car equipped with speed detectors on the front and rear windshields.
Azrak's police car is also the prototype for an automated ticketing system. From a laptop computer, the officer can type in the violation and print out the citation, rather than having to fill out the tickets by hand. Eventually, the department would like to install the equipment in all of its traffic enforcement cars.
''Before this I, would go through a pen a day,'' Azrak says, as he waits to tear off from the printer yet another ticket that mirrors the receipts from cash registers.
For Azrak, technology brings a new dimension to his work but he still has to deal with the same old excuses he hears every day from drivers caught speeding or running red lights.
''Officer I've been driving up and down this street for the past nine years, I didn't know,'' one driver tells Azrak after being pulled over for driving his truck in a no-truck zone.
The road in question has been open nearly two years.
''Officer, there was a driver in the left lane and they were going to hit me so I had to speed off,'' said a motorist caught running a red light.
There was no driver in the left lane.
But watery eyes, sob stories and excuses make no impression on the officers known for handing out tickets at record pace.
''People may not always like it when we're giving them their ticket,'' Azrak said. ``But it's our job to keep the streets safe.''