The California Highway Patrol hosted its first “Coffee with a Cop” meeting, appropriately at the Mars Hill Coffeehouse Dec. 13 as a way to meet with residents of San Benito County to discuss their concerns. About a dozen or so locals took up Capt. Scott Parker’s and Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Chris Miceli’s invitation to talk informally about anything related to roads and traffic enforcement.
“Coffee with a Cop is something our department has latched on to, but it actually started back East by a police department,” said Miceli. “I believe it’s been going on nationwide about 13 years. We’ve recently implemented the program and did our first one at Sandy’s Café in Gilroy. The plan is to continue the event and alternate between San Benito County and South Santa Clara County monthly.”
Miceli said the agenda for the coffees is generally wide open.
“This being the first event we’ve had here, from a Highway Patrol standpoint we wanted to address specifically the amount of traffic on our county roads and the increase on the roads,” he said. “Along with the increase in traffic has come an increase in traffic complaints, and that’s what we really wanted to focus on today. But going forward it’s an open-forum kind of thing, like a town hall. We want to connect with the community in a unique way. We can talk about sports, the weather and community traffic complaints, as well.”
In addition to a number of residents who wanted to know why 55 mph signs had appeared along Spring Grove Road, Mary Gilbert, executive director of Council of San Benito County Governments (COG), and Supervisor Anthony Botelho were there to lend support and comment or answer questions.
Captain Parker told the group the Highway Patrol had invited the county and someone from the roads department to help answer questions. While Botelho made an appearance, no one from the roads department showed up, so he fielded all the questions as best he could about the county roads.
The consensus quickly became clear that those around the table were concerned about drivers speeding along the back roads 30 or more miles per hour faster than the legal limits. One woman said she is scared to step out to her mailbox because of the fast-moving traffic on two-lane back roads that more and more commuters seem to be taking in order to stay off of Highways 25 or 156 as long as possible.
“It’s scary,” she commented. “One afternoon I was coming home, and I know to put my signal on way early just so people can see it, and this guy didn’t see it and he went off to the right into the field. It’s really gotten awful.”
Parker said he or Miceli are available for calls about traffic concerns and are willing to bring out a radar trailer or a senior volunteer to try to slow down speeders.
“The idea is the more we can show the door of the patrol car the more people will slow down,” he said. “Even if it’s only a senior volunteer, the motoring public when they roll by don’t know that right away.”
The question about the need for speed signs came up repeatedly and Capt. Parker answered that the Highway Patrol has jurisdiction for speed enforcement only and not signage.
“When a sign is posted, we can go out an enforce that sign as long as there’s a traffic and engineering survey on that road,” he said. “If we write a ticket and it’s on a county road that’s posted at 45 mph, if there is not a traffic and engineering survey on file we’re going to get thrown out of court, and we’ve wasted everybody’s time. They can post whatever they want, but it’s not enforceable unless there’s that traffic and engineering survey.”
He said, though, that traffic signs are not generally posted unless there is a survey. He emphasized a separation of authorities: governments determined speed limits and the Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies enforce them. He said inside the city limits, the Hollister PD is responsible for enforcement. Outside of the city limits, any traffic-related incident or stolen vehicles will involve the Highway Patrol. The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for crimes involving property or people.
Unfortunately, in a county as large in area as San Benito, it could take a while for the Highway Patrol or a Sheriff’s deputy to show up. There are only four Sheriff’s deputies per shift to cover the entire county. Capt. Parker’s officers cover a massive amount of real estate area along Highway 101 from the Monterey County line at the red barn up to Highway 85 at Blossom Hill. They also patrol along Highway 152 from the Hecker Pass west of Gilroy to Dinosaur Point on the Pacheco Pass. And then they cover Highway 25 from the 101 down to the Coalinga area in the southeast and over to King City, in the southwest. Then there are all the county roads in the unincorporated areas of San Benito and Santa Clara Counties, which his officers are also responsible for covering.
“I have an assigned strength of 37 officers, but I don’t actually have 37 officers,” Parker said. “I think I’m at 35 right now. Of those, five work inside, so now I’m down to about 30 officers and we have to provide 24-hour coverage to that whole area. Generally, on a day shift I’m really pleased if I have four officers.”
This means four to five Highway Patrol officers, depending on the shift, must cover 2,694 square miles of two counties, so it’s almost impossible to determine the response time to any one accident or incident. But Parker explained that the various law enforcement agencies, along with fire districts, including county and state, attempt to assist whenever possible until the Highway Patrol can get to the scene.
“Not only are we trying to regulate traffic and slow it down, but there are days we can’t do it because we’re responding to call after call,” he said. “And if it’s a collision they have to write the report that is mandated to be out to the public in eight business days. When people ask how many officers I have out there, there aren’t near as many as I need.”
At best, Parker said there will be one officer covering the south end of Highway 101, one officer at the north end, another officer on Highway 152, and one for all of San Benito County’s 1,390 square miles.
“Ideally, I would like to see that officer in the west part of the county because it seems a lot of traffic is trying to bypass the congestion on the 25 will shoot down the county roads, San Justo, Duncan at 90 mph just so they can justify making that detour,” said Supervisor Botelho. “It’s dangerous for people who work out there and for kids being dropped off by the school bus.”
In addition to officers ticketing drivers, Parker said in an attempt to slow traffic the department is using senior volunteers more often.
“In areas where we have a high volume of complaints we will send two senior volunteers in a regular unit (patrol car) that we have stickers on it that say ‘volunteer’ or ‘out of service,’” he said. “When they drive past someone they can better understand why they didn’t stop. We don’t want them stopping to help people out because they’re not equipped with the things we have (he motioned to his duty belt with gun and other equipment). That’s a program we’re really pushing just to try show the door a little bit more.”
Parker said the role for the senior volunteers is constantly expanding. If someone is interested in volunteering, they must be at least 55 years old, retired, and be able to pass a background check. Since they are not sworn peace officers, they cannot carry weapons, even if they have a concealed weapons permit.
For more information on the Coffee with a Cop program, to volunteer, contact Chris Miceli at 408-848-2324, ext. 211, or firstname.lastname@example.org.