WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — A recent Wrightsville Beach Police Department operation that resulted in 21 citations, and 10 warning tickets over two days was not illegal – but Chief of Police Daniel House said the tactics used by the department go against his philosophy on police enforcement.
In January, in an attempt to address the issue of drivers running through the crosswalk located on Causeway Drive and North Channel Drive, officers triggered the HAWK (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk Beacon) signal when cars approached.
Vehicles that failed to stop were then ticketed for failure to stop at a traffic signal.
The crosswalk in question is frequently used by children on their way to and from school, and has been the subject of several resident’s complaints, House said. The crosswalk is located within a school zone, and according to House, drivers frequently “blow through” the light without stopping.
A hybrid, and confusing solution
The HAWK light was installed several years ago, and House admits the system can cause confusion, especially for drivers who are not familiar with the device.
Essentially, a person wanting to cross the street activates the signal which turns yellow as an indicator to drivers that the light is going to change. Then it turns to a steady red, indicating traffic must stop. After the steady red, the light will begin to flash red, and drivers can then treat the intersection like a stop sign.
The system is not what House or Wrightsville Beach hoped for at the crossing, House said. He would have preferred a traditional crosswalk and light system, but ultimately the NCDOT made the decision to install the HAWK system, he said.
Ultimately, the crosswalk and the signal are there for the safety of pedestrians but drivers often are not paying attention to the lights when crossing the causeway, House said.
House said he has spoken with District Attorney Ben David regarding the legality of the actions of police officers, and he has been assured the methods used do not meet the criteria for entrapment, however, the methods used go against his own personal philosophy. House said he has made that known to his officers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina weighed in on the issue and claimed the tactics used to set drivers up to give citations diminish the public’s trust in police.
“When officers blatantly set up drivers to give them a citation, it is frequently an excuse to hand out fines and squeeze money out of people who often can’t afford it. A single traffic offense in North Carolina can trap people who can’t afford to pay their fines in an unjust, sometimes unending cycle of court debt. Tactics like these do nothing to make communities safer, but they do plenty to diminish the public’s trust in their local law enforcement,” Mike Meno, spokesman for the ACLU of N.C., said.
When it comes to which drivers received actual citations and which received a warning is not known to House, but he said that is up to the officer’s own discretion.
While the actions taken by the police might go against House’s beliefs on policing, the reason police were even patrolling the crosswalk stemmed from resident complaints. The officer in charge of the operation was a newly appointed supervisor and was attempting to be proactive on the issue, House said.
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