The Waco Police Department cracked down on traffic violations Wednesday and Thursday by concentrating enforcement at frequent crash intersections.
The department even employed an unusual tactic: An undercover officer was posted at select intersections to catch red-light and other traffic violators.
During a total of 10 hours of enforcement during the two-day event, officers pulled over 135 vehicles and recorded 182 violations. Several offenders had more than one violation, said Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton.
The traffic unit made eight arrests and impounded eight vehicles.
Swanton, who was live-tweeting the locations and traffic stops both days, said part of the effort included an officer who was incognito on Thursday.
The officer wore plain clothes and carried a cardboard sign that read “I like smiling.” He started the day standing on a median at Lake Air and Waco drives, observing traffic violators.
Swanton said police have implemented the undercover observation technique before. Thursday, the officer, who Swanton said typically wears a police radio and a pair of glasses with video recording equipment in them, also was stationed at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and New Road, then Waco Drive and New Road.
The traffic unit officer observed and reported violations to a marked unit who conducted the traffic stops, but he did not approach the vehicles himself, Swanton said.
The frequency with which police employ the tactic depends on where law enforcement is focused that day, Swanton explained. Intersections with high crash rates and areas with histories of injury crashes or fatality wrecks might require several officers at one time, including one without a uniform.
Waco residents and city leaders had varying opinions on the technique after Swanton posted a picture of the undercover officer on Facebook and Twitter Thursday morning. Commenters on the Waco Police Department Facebook page asked whether the officer was accepting money, as his cardboard sign could be interpreted as that of a homeless person.
“Sometimes they carry a sign, sometimes they don’t,” Swanton said. “I know before they would stand with a sign that says ‘drive safe’ — today’s just happened to say ‘I like smiles’ and ‘buckle up.’ There’s no rhyme or reason about the sign.”
Swanton told Facebook commenters that the officer does not accept donations. Three hours later, this had apparently become an issue, because Swanton posted a status that read, “Please don’t give money to our observer. He can’t take it and we pay him well enough!!”
Mayor Malcom Duncan Jr. told the Tribune-Herald he thinks the tactic is “creative,” and said he took no issue with the possible deception or the cardboard sign.
Waco City Councilwoman Toni Herbert agreed, as long as the officer followed a city ordinance that requires him to stay on the median.
“What’s the difference between him standing there and us having a camera?” she asked. “We’re trying everything we can think of to make our cities safer, and it ain’t easy.”
“You have to expect that you’re being watched these days,” she added. “There’s no such thing as privacy.”
But 74-year-old Waco resident Joy Strickland disagreed.
“The whole purpose of him doing that is deceptive,” Strickland said. “I’m not into the Big Brother thing, and I don’t think it’s right.
“There’s right ways and there’s wrong ways. And I think this is a wrong way.”
Mission Waco Executive Director Jimmy Dorrell said he wasn’t worried about the officer’s appearance possibly being associated with homelessness.
“It might be a little different if he was putting on a fake beard and was barefooted,” Dorrell said. “To be standing out there in non-police clothes doesn’t bother me.”
There are very few homeless people on street corners and medians in Waco, he said, because of the city ordinance Herbert mentioned.
“I love homeless people, and most of the ones I’m around aren’t begging,” Dorrell said. “They’re trying the best they can to make money other ways.”
Swanton also denied that the presence of an incognito officer in plain clothes was an attempt to trick the public.
“We’re not trying to be sneaky,” he said. “We told everyone on Facebook and Twitter. We’re out here, we’re tweeting about it and we’re getting press coverage.
“It’s not necessarily about writing tickets. It’s more about getting people to comply with what is an obvious issue with following traffic laws.”