DPS targets bad drivers with sky patrol - East Valley Tribune: News

DPS targets bad drivers with sky patrol

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Posted: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 7:59 pm | Updated: 8:52 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

While piloting the lone plane in the Arizona Department of Public Safety's airborne highway patrol program earlier this week, Geoff Jacobs told his passenger the tale of a stop during a similar patrol in Payson.

"It was a guy on a motorcycle who tried to hide from one of our patrol cars following him up a hill," Jacobs said in an exclusive Tribune interview during the patrol.

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"He pulled off the road and into some trees. His average speed was over 120 (mph on a road where the limit is 65). I stayed above him the whole time and, when he decided to come out and made a U-turn to go in the other direction, I radioed down to the car. When the officer finally stopped him, the guy got off his cycle and said, 'How did you find me?' The officer just pointed up."

Jacobs said the motorcyclist never saw it coming.

"We're a speck up there sometimes," he said. "You know it's a bad day when you run from police and there's an airplane waiting for you."

Jacobs is among a group of five full-time pilots and four other DPS employees who conduct three two-hour, air-and-ground patrols at least once a week. They select random locations throughout the state. They alternate between the 1980 Cessna 182 and a ground unit on their patrols as part of DPS Operation Air Support Assisting Patrol, or ASAP.

The unit is part of a traffic-enforcement program started in March designed to target excessive speeding and aggressive driving.

ASAP pilots watch vehicles for suspicious activity such as tailgating, breaking away from a pack at a high speed or weaving in and out of traffic.

They track the vehicle with an airborne Visual Average Speed Computer and Recorder, or VASCAR, a device similar to a stop-watch that shows the average speed clocked between white lines drawn one-quarter of a mile apart on the side of the highway. The pilot clicks the button when a vehicle passes one stripe and then another, and there is no radar involved.

When a pilot clocks a vehicle going 10 miles over the posted speed limit, he radios the information to a patrol officer, who then decides whether he wants to stop the driver.

"It's time over a distance," said DPS officer Andy Dobis, a pilot whose idea got the program going. "It's a clock, which makes it tough to challenge in court."

During a patrol detail on Monday high above the Beeline Highway north of the Verde River in Fountain Hills, Jacobs made continuous one-mile, race-track style loops, 1,000 feet to 2,000 feet in the air at 70 mph to 80 mph. Jacobs admitted the loops may seem monotonous, but he said he sees enough to keep him busy; unit members make an average of six stops per day, although pilots may radio more possible violations.

Dobis said from a patrol cruiser that Jacobs eyeballs cars from an eagle's perspective. "He can see about five or six miles," he said.

During one two-hour stretch, Jacobs spotted five possible violators and radioed information to Dobis and a part-time patrolman in another car. One of three wereeventually stopped.

Julie Schloner of Phoenix was accused of driving at an average speed of 89.3 mph in an area with a posted speed limit of 65 mph.

"I had no idea they did this," Schloner said of the air patrol. "I wouldn't have thought I was going that fast - maybe 75."After talking with Schloner, Dobis told her he'd write the ticket for 85 mph.

A Mesa justice court employee said the fine for 85 mph is $185, although the driver may have the option of paying $120 to attend traffic school. For 89.3 mph, the fine would have been approximately $235, although a judge can raise or lower the fine.

The lone plane in the DPS fleet has four seats, a 230-horsepower engine, state patrol decals on the wings, DPS on the tail and the same DPS star that's on each ground-patrol vehicle. It has a scanner, specialized airborne police radio, 200-watt public address system and siren.

Bob Bresnahan, a civilian senior pilot who runs the unit, said DPS bought the plane on a grant from the federal government years ago when the speed limit was 55 mph.

"We still call the plane the Cessna 55," Bresnahan said.

He said the program isn't meant to take officers off of the roads. In the past, up to eight cars were deployed during a speed enforcement detail. This way, all personnel involved in the operation are part of the ASAP unit.

Bresnahan said he's hoping to expand the program in the future.

"We're looking for anything a patrol car would look for, we just use the airborne advantage," Dobis said. He added that planes are able to see over cliffs and around bends much more easily than an officer would be able to from a patrol car.

An example of how the program has worked, Bresnahan said during a patrol Aug. 2 over Interstate 17 in New River, patrolmen made nine stops, eight for criminal speed. On Aug. 3, during a detail on Interstate 10 in Cochise County,there were 14 stops, with the average speed at 92 mph and the highest 104 mph.

"This program is about trying to change a driver's behavior," Dobis said. "If something like these stops and tickets are the wake-up call a driver needs to get them off the road and remind them what they are doing, this program is working."

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