PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The most frequent complaint the Police Department receives is regarding traffic.
Whether it is speeding on roads or intersections or crosswalks, Sgt. Marc Maddalena said the city's driving behaviors have been getting worse — especially when it comes to distracted driving. But patrol officers can only do what they can when they get a chance.
"For the last 20 years, we haven't had the ability to really focus on traffic and a lot of bad habits were the result of that," Maddalena said. "We get a lot of complaints of speeding on a lot of the same roads. We just haven't had the manpower and opportunity to focus on those areas and try to control it."
That started to change on Sunday. An additional 10 officers in patrol and another four in field training now has opened up staffing flexibility. Maddalena has moved out of patrol and is heading the new Traffic Unit, a full-time special assignment unit that had been dormant for two decades.
"We get high volume speeding complaints and it always on the same roadways. We get persistent complaints about stop sign violations, particularly at four-way stops in some of the residential areas. We get school bus passing violation complaints," Chief Michael Wynn said.
"Now instead of a patrol lieutenant saying 'hey, as available, see what you can do about this,' traffic can develop a plan and they have a more flexible deployment schedule."
The unit is staffed with two other officers and soon to be another. The four-person group has flexibility in shifts, can separate or work together at certain hours, to combat specific traffic issues.
"In the summer, we'll be doing things together. We'll be visible and seen. There is more than just speeding. There are things related to safety. There are a lot of cars out there with bad stickers that shouldn't be on the road. Eventually, I'd like to get back into the commercial vehicle stuff, too. There are plenty of dump trucks that need to be looked at and enforced how they are operating," Maddalena said, later adding the department can help with congestion issues when parents are dropping off and picking up students from schools.
Wynn said when considering the best ways to use the increase in staffing approved last year, there were a number of considerations. But, traffic "checked every box" because it impacts all hours, in every part of the city, and is related to a number of other issues.
Police Department leadership coupled those justifications with a report from the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Justice linking crime to high vehicle crash areas. The Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety model calls for targeted traffic enforcement near high crash sites to not only increase safety but to combat crime.
"Relatively recent research shows there is a clear correlation between traffic crashes and criminal activity," Wynn said, adding that the enforcement will get more arrests for warrants or drugs.
Maddalena, who has been involved with traffic for years and is trained in accident reconstruction and traffic safety, said the department runs targeted enforcement through federal grants already. Grant funding pays for a click it or ticket campaign, drunk driving details, distracted driving, and crosswalk enforcement. But the department feels there is more to do.
"We know particularly with the distracted driving thing, the numbers are bad. They are bad and going to get worse," Wynn said, and vehicle versus pedestrian accidents have been increasing locally, statewide, and nationally.
Maddalena emphasized that it is not a unit designed solely for ticket revenue. He used the example of Barker Road, where there are frequent complaints about speeding. He said many of those speeding up there are residents and he'd rather curb the behavior through means other than tickets.
"It is not a tool to generate money. That is not what we are doing. Are we going to write tickets and fines? Yes, we absolutely are but overall the whole point of the traffic unit is to change driving behavior in the city of Pittsfield. We're doing that through education and through enforcement. The enforcement isn't just writing fines, it is writing warnings or giving verbal warnings as well," Maddalena said.
He added, "we have social media now and I'm not against saying, 'hey listen, we are going to be on this road, focusing attention on the road, and I'm giving you a heads up.' Or getting the signboards and putting them on either side of the road."
Wynn said the job is equal parts enforcement and education. By changing traffic behavior in troublesome spots, Wynn said that is a contributor to improving the quality of life.
"Traffic is, without a doubt, the largest and most persistent complaints the department gets both directly from residents and via ward councilors. We get more requested traffic enforcement from those two groups than we do anything else," Wynn said.
The city technically had a traffic unit for years but the officers in that unit were moved to patrol to ensure minimum staffing requirements. That meant they'd be answering calls for service instead of focusing on traffic issues. Four months ago, Maddalena was pulled from the patrol counts and considered a "plus one" in which he'd focus on traffic unless he was needed in an emergency.
When four additional officers finished the academy, that opened the door for the department to do the same with others. Now with a unit the city hadn't really had in decades, Wynn encourages residents to contract Maddalena at 413-448-9700, Ext. 339, about their traffic concerns.
"It is a new unit. They are looking for missions. They are looking for enforcement locations," Wynn said.
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