Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Police Department wants a dedicated traffic unit to fix enforcement problems, including stories about officers serving tickets to injured pedestrians or cyclists at the hospital. MPD believes inconsistent enforcement of traffic laws has created tension between officers and pedestrians or cyclists.

Officer Andrew Gamm from MPD’s 5th District, Lt. Nicholas Breul from the Special Operations District, and Lt. Mark Hodge from the 6th District spoke with DC’s Pedestrian Advisory Council Monday night to talk about these issues.

One brought up a report about an officer ticketing an injured pedestrian in an ambulance, but said he was unable to verify if it was true. Similar incidents came up at a recent hearing and have been reported on blogs like Struck in DC and TBD On Foot.

A sustained effort of education and enforcement can reduce this tension and improve pedestrian safety. However, the current budget crisis and low police staffing levels make this a difficult prospect.

The commanders said MPD used to have a dedicated traffic unit but previous police chiefs decentralized that effort. Currently, each district has officers working on traffic enforcement but they are not a single city-wide unit.

This means enforcement is inconsistent across the city. MPD currently targets “hot spots” for a set period and then moves its resources to other areas. However, problems often return after enforcement efforts end. Uneven enforcement also means some police districts enforce violations like jaywalking, while others do not.

Some on the Pedestrian Advisory Council complained that MPD officers often do not follow up with pedestrians and bicyclists involved in accidents and that the officers can be rude when they do. The commanders admitted that MPD can do more to improve communication with sergeants and patrol officers, including reinforcing proper procedures for crash investigations.

Having a dedicated traffic unit would allow MPD to give specialized training to traffic officers. These officers could also build stronger relationships with the communities they patrol because they would have sustained interactions around traffic enforcement.

Some of the commanders admitted that interactions with pedestrians can be more confrontational than with motorists. This, they said, often happens because pedestrians are more likely to challenge the officer than drivers.

They also said the nature of police work can make routine traffic enforcement tenser. For example, switching from chasing a gunman to writing a jaywalking ticket can be a rough transition. A dedicated traffic unit could help reduce these shifts.

The human nature argument is certainly a fair one. I can imagine if an officer just chased a gunman, his adrenaline may be high, and he may be more likely to be short or rude to an angry pedestrian. But this argument also seems to excuse rude behavior because police work can be dangerous. One officer even went so far as to say he wouldn’t tell someone else how to do his or her job. This sort of attitude isn’t helpful.

Pedestrian Advisory Council members asked for better public education efforts, including an expansion of the regional StreetSmart program.  The program is an enforcement and awareness campaign by area police departments to improve safety for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.  George Branyan, DDOT Pedestrian Coordinator, said DDOT has a limited budget for the program. Similar education programs that use shock value are less effective without enforcement to supplement them.

The MPD representatives said the department needs greater political support for increased enforcement, and the advisory council pledged to work with the DC Council to provide more support.