It took Spokane police officers just an hour and a half to hand out 52 citations during a sting operation near Gonzaga University last Tuesday. That’s more than one ticket every two minutes, and two-thirds of the violations written up were failure to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Police call these operations emphasis patrols, and they set this one up after neighbors in the area expressed safety concerns. No doubt the drivers who received the tickets, which typically cost more than $100, will remember the experience, and they may even be more attentive to pedestrians trying to make it across busy streets at unsignaled intersections.
But if a plainclothes police decoy, acting like a student, could generate 35 violations in one 90-minute period on one Tuesday at Hamilton Street and Desmet Avenue, how many offenses take place in the city every day?
The law says there’s a crosswalk at every intersection, striped or not. The law says that in the absence of a “don’t walk” signal, a pedestrian who steps off the curb with the intent of crossing the street should be able to expect passing motorists to stop.
That’s what the law says, but as 35 violations in an hour and a half would indicate, either the law is not understood or it is routinely ignored.
Emphasis patrols, in theory, send the public a message. They remind motorists of their duty to honor pedestrians’ rights, and they back the reminder up with a painful consequence.
But if the 35 drivers pulled over in the Gonzaga sting had ever received that message, they forgot it Tuesday, raising a question about how effective emphasis patrols really are at delivering a lasting lesson.
If the numbers recorded during Tuesday’s operation at Hamilton and Desmet don’t convince police that this is an ongoing problem, perhaps they could talk to pedestrians who routinely try to navigate crossings in other parts of the city. They will hear stories of car after car streaming past, especially on busy arterials such as Second and Third avenues downtown, heedless to frustrated pedestrians trying to exercise their rights.
We understand that motorists don’t want to be inconvenienced by such a law – at least until they find out there is a greater inconvenience for violating it.
But the law is on the books, and it should be enforced as uniformly as is reasonable. Traffic patrol officers must have the discretion to give their first attention to the most serious immediate concerns, but in the absence of an overriding issue, they should be as emphatic about crosswalk violations where they affect authentic pedestrians – every day – as they are on behalf of a decoy during an occasional 90-minute sting.