Friday, March 28, 2014
It was originally set up to be an evening of observation of the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office K-9 unit and H.E.A.T. (Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic) saturation. The weeklong late-night initiative took place last week in partnership with North Charleston Police Department, focusing along Dorchester Road and Ashley Phosphate…a particularly troublesome area.
Deputy Eric Flowers is the night side H.E.A.T and traffic deputy. His 12-hour nocturnal shift is partnered by his day-shift equivalent, Deputy Russ Conklin. He picks me up at the Carl Knight Law Enforcement Complex on Deming Way. He is driving a black patrol car emblazoned with H.E.A.T.
Flowers has 25 years with the SC Highway Patrol, Troop 6, and since he retired from SCHP, has been a DCSO deputy for the past two years.
He explains his and the H.E.A.T. approach to traffic enforcement.
“I take the data from the past year in Dorchester County,” he says, “and I determine the top roads, top days and top times for crashes.”
And that's where he concentrates his patrol.
“Our No. 1 aim is to prevent fatalities. We do that by preventing collisions and we do that by changing behaviors and attitudes.”
It's a three-pronged approach, he says.
Education – via civic groups and organizations, new drivers at the high school level and soon-to-be new drivers at the middle school level.
Visibility – being out and about and being seen on the county roads.
Enforcement – writing citations for speeders, distracted drivers, seatbelt and child restraint infractions.
We head out. His analysis of Dorchester County crashes last year point him toward four roads that have had the highest number of crash incidents: Highway 165/Bacon's Bridge Road; Dorchester Road; Trolley Road and Highway 61.
We head toward Highway 61.
We drive along the bucolic Highway 61. Flowers has one hand on the wheel and one hand over his radar control. His pinky is over the activation button. The radar sounds a beeping noise each time it registers the speed of oncoming vehicles. It is a 55 mph speed limit and most cars are within a 10-mile per hour grace speed.
The radar beeps. “Ah, a 69 [mph]!” We execute a rapid three-point turn and take off, blue lights flashing. The vehicle pulls over. Flowers positions his patrol car slightly to the left of the pulled over vehicle giving himself a safety zone that will keep him from being hit by passing cars as he stands next to the driver's door. Flowers relays his location, a description of the vehicle and the tag number to dispatch, asking them to run the tag. He quietly exits his vehicle not quite shutting his door and cautiously approaches the driver's door.
His in-car video is recording and although it records audio via a microphone on Flowers' belt, it can't be heard in the patrol car. The driver hands him paperwork and he returns to the patrol car. Dispatch tells him the status of the tag and he relays the driver's information from the driver's license in his hand. It comes back “clear” meaning it is not suspended and there are no outstanding wants or warrants on the subject.
Another patrol car pulls up behind us. It is a Charleston County deputy checking to ensure Flowers is okay with the stop.
Because most area agencies have single-officer patrol vehicles, it is standard for other officers – regardless of the agency – to stop when they see a patrol car with a pulled-over vehicle and offer assistance. It is a courtesy safety thing.
He then proceeds to write a citation. For driving 14 mph over the speed limit, the driver has earned a $133 ticket and four points on his license.
Flowers returns the registration, insurance and driver's license to the driver along with the ticket. He gets back in the patrol car, shuts off the forward blue lights so the driver can see to pull back into traffic and we pull out after and continue back along Highway 61 toward where we started.
We are now on Highway 165 and a vehicle going 75 mph in a 55 mph zone flies by. We execute another three-point turn – Flowers is expert at these – and pull the vehicle over. While conferring with the driver a black SUV with a white roof pulls up. The man flashes a sheriff's badge at Flowers, checking to make sure all is well. Flowers doesn't know what agency the officer is from but he appreciates the check.
He proceeds to write a citation. This will cost the driver $185 and four points for the 21 mph over the speed limit he was driving.
We have been driving up and down the problem roads and are currently back on Highway 61. Up ahead a string of cars is passed by another car. There's a gleam in Flowers' eye.
“See that? He's doing 69 [mph] and passing on a solid yellow.”
We do our three-point turn and take off after the car. In order to get behind the vehicle we must get ahead of about five other vehicles. These vehicles try to pull over on the narrow, shoulder-less road. We are half in our lane and half in the oncoming lane. Fortunately there are no vehicles in the oncoming lane. We pass the last of the five and see the target vehicle way ahead. We take off after it. A glance at the speedometer strikes a gut wrenching fear. Centrifugal force has plastered me to the seat. “How fast are we going?” I squeak.
My stomach is now in my mouth and I am very glad I had not eaten dinner.
We are finally behind the car and have slowed to a less terrifying speed of 60 something as the car slows and looks for a place to pull over.
We stop and Flowers exits as I pant in my seat trying to recover my composure.
Flowers returns to the car. “He told me he knew he was speeding but he insists there was no solid yellow,” says Flowers.
Flowers writes the citation only for the passing violation since that was what caused him to go after the vehicle in the first place. It is a $155, fine and a mandatory four points.
With most citations, the judge has the discretion to reduce the fines and points to a state-mandated minimum. However, if there are a mandatory number of points, the judge cannot reduce them.
Another 68 mph in a 55 mph zone. Another citation for $133 plus four points.
We head down toward the joint-agency saturation event area. Flowers switches the radio frequency to Tac 1 from his normal patrol frequency. Tac 1 will be used by all members of the saturation event to communicate with dispatch and each other.
We see two DCSO vehicles in the parking lot of the Cine Mark on Ladson Road. We pull in. The deputies have three teens and their vehicle. It looks as though the young driver has been told to “stay here,” away from the two passengers, and is standing, stiffly, off to the side. The teen doesn't move an inch, except for his hands, which spontaneously clench and twitch. His face is a story of fear and regret.
The other two teens seem a bit cockier, leaning against the vehicle as Deputy Scotty Mendenhaul pats them down. Mendenhaul's partner, K-9 Deputy Yosi, remains in the vehicle barking his wish to join in the action.
Mendenhaul, and Deputy Frank Harris, get permission to search the vehicle. Had the teens refused, Mendenhaul would have allowed Yosi to work. Yosi is trained in drug detection and most likely would have immediately alerted to the bag of marijuana in the center console that the deputies found.
However, since consent was given, Yosi will have to wait to get involved tonight.
This is disappointing since seeing a K-9 work is the main point of tonight.
Harris approaches the driver and discusses choices with him. The driver is hanging out with a kid, he says, who has been expelled from school for a weapons violation. He is at a turning point in his life, Harris says. He can make a good choice and stop hanging out with people who will get him in trouble or he can continue on this path and throw his life away.
The kids just blinks as his hands continue their nervous twitching. He still hasn't moved from his spot.
The original stop, says Harris, was for speeding. Unfortunately, what began as a traffic violation has now grown to include a drug violation.
For the next two hours we drive Ladson, Dorchester and Ashley Phosphate. We see each of the five K-9 units either sitting off the roads and watching traffic or pulled over with vehicles for various reasons – so far mostly warnings.
We pull into the striped area on a Dorchester Road exit and Flowers turns our lights off. We sit, in a black car with no lights. I ask if this isn't dangerous since cars are exiting alongside and since we are looking for drunk drivers who by nature of their drunkenness might not stick to the designated lane and smash into us?
He laughs and says we are “off the road.” This has not calmed me.
Fortunately an oncoming vehicle exits in front of us with a dead headlight. We activate our lights, pull into Kings Grant behind it and Flowers writes a warning.
The radio crackles and it is Harris asking Flowers to come to his location to conduct a Field Sobriety Test. We arrive and see Harris has a vehicle pulled over with three occupants.
Flowers positions his patrol car so he can conduct the test and record the entire procedure on his in-vehicle camera. This recording will be used in prosecuting the case if needed. Flowers is often called for possible DUIs as he is certified and has years of experience in FST.
He begins the test.
Harris says the passenger is admittedly drunk but the female in the back is only 19 and was not drinking.
The young man has failed the FST. Flowers places him under arrest for DUI, puts him in handcuffs, and proceeds to read him his Miranda rights, then carefully seats him in the patrol car and straps the seatbelt. The young man confidently asks for a breath analysis. Flowers tells him that is the next step.
The female says she can drive the vehicle.
We head out to the LEC jail.
For the next hour and a half the driver will be processed into jail. As we drive toward the jail, the driver's nervousness increases. He keeps saying he was the designated driver and his roommate urged him to drink a Jäger Bomb (a gimmick drink that combines a glass of Red Bull with a shot glass of Jägermeister).
The young man says he is in the Air Force and his primary concern for the next hour is if his chain of command will find out about his arrest. He repeatedly asks if the deputy or the jail will call them.
We arrive at the LEC and pull into the Sally Port and the razor wire-topped gates clang shut. We enter the jail and Flowers takes the young man into the Breathalyzer room. He starts the machine and begins a careful explanation of the procedure. There is paperwork to sign and a 20-minute mandated waiting period before the “blow.”
Others are brought into the jail. There's a female, quietly crying as the detention personnel answer her questions. There another kid picked up on a bench warrant. He makes a phone call demanding a friend ask another for money to pay his fine.
Back in the Breathalyzer room it is time.
The young man blows. The machine grunts and groans. The results are in. The Breath Alcohol Concentration (BhAC) is .09. The legal limit is .08.
The young man focuses on this lamenting the one tenth of a percent over. What he doesn't seem to realize is that anything over .04 is at the officer's discretion, Flowers explains. In other words, he could still be charged with DUI even if he is under .08.
Regardless he is spending the night in jail and as he is taken to the booking counter he begins, again, asking if his command is going to be notified. The booking officer tells him he should call his command immediately and be the one to tell them. It is clear this is not the outcome he wants. The booking officer tells him the military calls every night to ask if any military have been arrested.
The young man fills out forms, is given a black and white striped jumpsuit, and has his mug shot and fingerprints taken.
The booking officer tells us the K-9 units are pursuing a man who took off from a traffic stop down on Ashley Phosphate.
Of course they are … and we missed it.
It is now about 2 a.m. Flowers' shift ends at 3 a.m. I turned into a pumpkin a few hours ago so Flowers takes me home.
I may have missed the “big K-9 event” of the night, but I certainly got an inside look at what a traffic officer does, back and forth and up and down the county roads, trying to make them safer.