AP NEWS

Santa Fe officers ticket dozens of drivers in first week of traffic enforcement crackdown

April 8, 2019

Parked across the street from the scene of a grisly crash that claimed the life of a 9-year-old boy and his father in February, police Officer Arthur Maes was focused on a mission to make the mean streets of Santa Fe a little safer.

After rolling down the driver’s side window of his police cruiser, Maes monitored the early morning traffic on southbound St. Francis Drive with the aid of a hand-held laser gun, waiting for someone to break the law.

The wait was brief.

Within a matter of minutes, a speeding motorist caught Maes’ attention.

“This guy is going 53,” Maes said of a white sedan traveling nearly 20 mph over the posted speed limit.

“After all these weeks since that crash, just that specific intersection, it’s still happening,” Maes said later, referring to the two-vehicle collision Feb. 22 that killed Dominic Archuleta and his son, Jeremiah.

Traffic infractions are happening all over Santa Fe, not just at the intersection of St. Francis Drive and Hickox Street.

Hoping to curb what it called “the dangerous driving habits taking place on our streets,” the Santa Fe Police Department launched a new traffic enforcement initiative a little more than a week ago. Dubbed Operation Spring Blitz, the fight against dangerous drivers will run through Memorial Day weekend at the end of May, officials said.

“We want to get people invested for the long run to say, ‘You know what? I need to make sure that I take into account that my driving does affect not only me but others around me,’ ” Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said Friday. “We want it to be safe for people to be out there riding their bikes, walking with their children going to school, going to the grocery store. Wherever their destination may be, we want them to feel safe traveling our roads.”

Ten police officers, including five traffic officers who had been assigned to patrol to alleviate a staffing shortage, will focus on traffic enforcement at known trouble spots. They will be looking for a wide range of traffic violations, from speeding and running red lights to texting while driving and not wearing seat belts.

“We’re going to be expanding our overtime opportunities for our patrol officers as well to get out there and contribute,” Valdez said, adding the department set aside $50,000 in overtime for the operation.

In addition, the traffic safety initiative will include a series of saturation patrols and checkpoints targeting drunken drivers.

So far, the police department is pleased with the results of the new initiative. In the first six days of Operation Spring Blitz, which has been initially focused on the St. Francis Drive corridor, officers have made 100 traffic stops, resulting in 84 citations. Only about a dozen motorists got off with a warning.

Though the crash that killed the Archuletas was tragic and troubling, police said unmistakable trends prompted the need for a renewed effort. Police said in a news release that a “significant increase” in both car accidents and fatalities, as well as a steady drop in the number of citations in the past 10 years, required the city “to mount a serious response.”

Between 2009 and 2018, the number of motor vehicle crashes in Santa Fe jumped from 2,003 to 3,164 — a nearly 60 percent increase, according to documents provided by the police department.

The number of fatal car crashes fluctuates annually, but it seems clear Santa Fe’s streets have become deadlier.

Between 2009 and 2013, police reported 22 fatalities resulting from motor vehicle crashes. Between 2014 and 2018, the number grew to 34, a nearly 55 percent increase.

At the same time, the number of citations issued by Santa Fe police have fallen drastically.

For example, police issued 41,188 citations in 2009. Last year, they handed out 17,353, a nearly 58 percent drop, though the number of citations handed out annually fluctuates, too.

The police department initially assembled the statistics as part of a controversial proposal to bring back unmanned vehicles that photograph speeding motorists, which are commonly referred to as speed vans.

Amid opposition from the public and members of the City Council, though, the police department announced it was putting the photo enforcement proposal on hold. The decision to shelve the proposal was buried at the bottom of the news release announcing the start of Operation Spring Blitz.

“We are focusing on efforts with our officers right now,” the department said in a news release at the time. “We’ll be evaluating Operation Spring Blitz first, before we look at using technology.”

The city first deployed mobile speed vans in 2009 but ended the program in 2013 when the city allowed its contract with Arizona-based Redflex Traffic Systems to lapse. That year, the company became embroiled in a widespread bribery corruption scheme that culminated in multimillion-dollar settlements and jail time for its chief executive.

Four years later, in 2017, a divided City Council narrowly voted to revive the program.

Police didn’t submit a proposal for consideration until March. Reasons for the delay were many, including changes in leadership at City Hall and at the police department. Another factor was extensive contract negotiations between the city’s legal department and the selected vendor, Verra Mobility Corp., formerly known as American Traffic Solutions.

While the police department backed off the proposal, police brass made the case for reviving the program in a 13-page report provided to the governing body.

In some years, the speed vans accounted for nearly a third of all citations issued by Santa Fe police.

“Having a uniformed officer patrol officer at an intersection around the clock, or stationed in one location all day and night, is unrealistic and unreasonable,” the report states. “The speed vans are capable of issuing citations [year-round] without utilizing an officer.”

For now, though, a living, breathing human being will have to do the job.

“We need to make our streets safer,” Mayor Alan Webber said in a statement the day the police department announced the launch of Operation Spring Blitz.

“I don’t want to read about another father and son killed in a car crash or people injured and maimed by a reckless driver,” he said, adding he hoped to see a dramatic reduction in speeding and dangerous driving.

Based on a short ride-along with Officer Maes last week, the police department has its work cut out.

Maes, a Santa Fe native who started working for the police department about 11 years ago, first as a traffic safety aide and now as a traffic enforcement officer, said he’s noticed an uptick in car crashes and traffic violations during his time on the force.

“I think a lot of it has to do with technology,” he said. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people are consistently on their phone, and I’ve seen this all the way from teenagers up to middle-aged people, even elderly.

“People don’t realize that they’re constantly checking their phone, and they almost get into like a daze when they’re driving. Before you know it, they can travel hundreds of feet while they’re looking at their cellphone and don’t even realize it.”

Maes said catching people breaking the rules of the road is almost effortless.

“I’ve seen women putting on makeup while they’re driving — that’s been happening for years, but I’ve seen that quite a bit,” he said, smiling. “Speeding quite a bit. Something as simple as using your turn signal. That’ll catch my attention. Any of these infractions can lead to someone with no insurance, no registration. Even a lot recently, no licenses.”

During a roughly one-hour period starting at dusk, Maes stopped four motorists on St. Francis Drive — three for speeding and one for talking on his cellphone while driving. Of the four motorists, only the man talking on his phone got a warning after he explained he was taking a call from his daughter.

“But if I do see him again [talking on his phone while driving], I will cite him,” Maes said.

Maes said he recently issued 17 traffic citations during a four-hour period. The number of citations he issues on any given day varies depending on what other duties he’s juggling, he said.

Asked whether he felt he was making Santa Fe’s streets safer, Maes said he wasn’t entirely sure.

“I’m hoping that what I’m doing is making a difference,” he said. “It’s my goal. Whether or not it works, we’ll see.”

You’ve been warned, Santa Fe.

As the police department continues to beef up its traffic enforcement, it may be the only warning you get.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

Number of motor vehicle crashes

2009: 2,203

2010: 2,290

2011: 2,160

2012: 2,517

2013: 2,585

2014: 2,620

2015: 3,092

2016: 3,162

2017: 3,206

2018: 3,164

Citywide citations

2009: 41,188

2010: 31,839

2011: 21,313

2012: 23,297

2013: 38,196

2014: 45,769

2015: 34,425

2016: 29,113

2017: 24,161

2018: 17,353