Courtesy, safety, top priorities of DPS

You are driving along thinking about the long list of things you have to get accomplished and minding your own business when in the rear view mirror, the flashing red and blue lights suddenly get your attention. It has happened to just about everyone of legal driving age at one point or another. Whether intentional or not, most drivers have been pulled over for one type of traffic violation or another’the most common of which is exceeding the speed limit. Over my lifetime I admittedly have played the little game many drivers have when they are trying to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time possible. I knew it wasn’t exactly legal, but at that point in time, I was more concerned with setting personal records or arriving somewhere as soon as I possibly could. On the other side of the table in the ongoing game of cat and mouse was the seemingly endless supply of law enforcement officers with their hi-tech radar guns, lurking at random intervals along my travel corridor. Why would they be concerned with speeders driving an old beat up Toyota’ Surely they would opt for some flashy sports car that just happened to be driving a few car lengths ahead of me’not true. Drive anywhere across the state of Texas and chances are that you will see a car with the distinctive black and white markings of the Department of Public Safety. At the helm of those cars are officers of Texas’ oldest organized law enforcement organization. Their mission is exactly what their department name implies’public safety. I am long since removed from my days of trying to outwit the law enforcement officers. I have a wife and two children who want me to arrive safely at my destination, no matter if it is a few minutes late. After speaking with McCulloch County Trooper Sam Gonzalez several months ago, I got the idea of riding along with him to see what life was like on the other side of the table. What is going through their heads’ Why do they get the bad rap they sometimes do’ What is it about a badge and a gun that makes them out to be the bad guys when all they are trying to do is look out for the well being of others’ It seemed like no big deal. Fill out a form or two, get approval from his commanding officer and hop in the car. What worries did I have, in college I was cleared in a background check and who knows what else by the Secret Service to drive in the vice presidential motorcade. Getting approval to ride with a state trooper should be easier than that, or so I thought. After virtually signing my life away on several different release forms, the process was begun but being a member of the media instantly put me in the ‘X’ category. With the risk of something going wrong, and it being published in an unfavorable light, there apparently was some negative resistance to my approval. After a little reassurance and prodding by Sam and his partner Kavin Miller, my request got the nod from Sergeant John Stafford. From there, the higher ups in Austin had to add their stamp of approval. When it was all said and done, it took nearly three months to get authorization to ride in the DPS vehicle on a tour of duty. I got the word I had been approved and planned a date with Trooper Gonzalez. A Friday night shift from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m., prime time to catch whomever doing whatever. A formal introduction to the patrol car detailing everything from what button did what to exactly what I was or was not supposed to do was first on the list. Basically, it came down to don’t touch anything and don’t get out of the car unless something goes terribly wrong’period. Off we went to monitor the public’s driving habits. Before I could even settle into my seat, we observed a driver ignoring the posted speed limit and a quick u-turn and a short pursuit followed. From the front seat of the car, I could see and hear everything that went on. A wireless microphone on Sam was linked directly to the video camera in the car that recorded every action and word. A whiff of alcohol and some peculiar behavior by both the driver and passenger alerted Sam that something was a little off kilter. After requesting identification from both the occupants of the vehicle, background checks divulged the fact that the passenger was wanted on numerous arrest warrants. All at once, a simple traffic stop became much more complicated. . . Friday evening, alcohol and two male subjects on the side of the road, one wanted for assault. How would the wanted man react’ How would the driver react’ Were the individuals intoxicated’ Did they care about the situation’ With the help of 12 years of experience, Sam calmly and respectfully controlled the situation and took the wanted individual into custody and after performing a field sobriety test, he sent the driver on his way. With the handcuffed individual sitting in the front seat, I hopped in the back seat for the ride to the jail where Sam filled out the abundance of paperwork that accompanies an arrest. I wondered why the man was transported in the front seat and not the back. According to Sam, most rural troopers do not have cages in their cars, and therefore, they keep the handcuffed individuals in the front seat where they can “keep an eye on them.” When we got back on patrol, we proceeded to perform several traffic stops. Some of the people received warnings and some weren’t so lucky. All of whom were obviously breaking the law. Some made excuses, others seemed baffled as to why they were caught despite having a radar detector. “Our goal as troopers is to have voluntary compliance with the laws,” said Sam. “The laws are designed to promote safety. If we pull someone over, it is because they have violated the law.” The motto of the Department of Public Safety is taught to them beginning the first day they arrive at the academy’Courtesy-Service-Protection. I have come to know McCulloch’s troopers through many roadside encounters as a reporter. They have always been cordial and respectful. It is not just an act. At every traffic stop I observed during this shift, Sam emulated the ideal character most folks should strive to achieve. “I believe in treating everyone with respect,” said Sam. “As long as people are courteous to me, I try and return the favor. I know what I am doing is usually taking money out of someone’s pocket, but our job is designed to promote safety, and I have to do my job just like anyone else who has a job. “When people get angry, they are usually angry at themselves for breaking the law and getting caught.” The service aspect of the motto comes into play for state troopers as well. Whether it be lending a hand to a stranded motorist or simply offering directions, they do and see it all. When the troopers are out on duty, most times they are on their own. The only link between them and the rest of the world is a radio or sometimes a cellular phone. The danger involved in stopping vehicles that can be from virtually anywhere sometimes catches up to the officers. “There was one time when I realized all of the sudden that what I was doing was really dangerous,” said Sam. “That is a big reason why I keep in touch with the dispatchers while on patrol. They are our lifeline. If they are not on top of things, a bad situation could easily become worse.” The dispatchers and law enforcement officers from every branch watch out for each other. Several times during my ridealong, the dispatchers called to check on Sam simply because he had not checked back in soon enough. He was sure to thank them when they did. The speeding motorists kept us busy for several hours. Rarely did more than a few minutes pass before the radar gun had someone locked in for exceeding the limit. The hours passed and the routine continued. One person, however, seemed to be destined to more future encounters with the law as he was stopped for doing 96 m.p.h. after dark. The man seemed pleasant and respectful and signed his ticket and went on his way. Less than 10 minutes later, the trooper in Mason County radioed us and inquired if the individual he had just stopped for speeding was the same one we had just ticketed. Sure enough it was. It seems as if some people will stretch the limits as far as possible and no amount of tickets will change their ways. Despite what many people think, troopers are not out to ticket every violator of the law. There are no quotas that mandate a certain number of tickets be written. As with any job, there are factors by which job performance is measured. For troopers, tickets and warnings are that measuring stick. So the next time you are stopped by a DPS trooper, you may not feel like smiling and thanking him for doing his job, but think about it from his perspective. If you hadn’t been breaking the law, you wouldn’t be pulled over on the side of the road talking to him. Just think how thankful you would be if he stopped a drunk driver’before he hurt or killed someone in a serious accident. It is all just part of the job.

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