LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — The roads are empty, but the speeds are high.
Drivers are putting the pedal to the metal during the pandemic, and while police are on the prowl, some drivers are crying foul.
"What is Metro [Las Vegas] police going to do when there’s a world emergency going on? How about a speed trap?!" Dave Breckon narrates over cell phone video he shot of a targeted speed enforcement the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's Traffic Bureau was doing on March 31 along Interstate 15 north near St. Rose Parkway.
Police see it as saving lives, and preserving ambulances and hospital resources for coronavirus victims.
Breckon looks at it differently.
"I saw it as bullying," he said. "They were giving out ticket after ticket after ticket. And they were just chicken-hawking people."
The department did give out ticket after ticket after ticket that afternoon.
LVMPD Traffic Lt. Bret Ficklin said, "That day we were out there we made 81 stops. We wrote 89 infractions."
All in just a three-hour period.
"Does it kind of make your officers wonder, ‘Who are all you people? Why are you out here? Where are you going?’" 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears asked.
"Especially when we’ve been asked to stay home!" Lt. Ficklin responded.
He says the area around St. Rose and I-15 has been a car crash hot spot, which is why it was targeted for enforcement.
"Of the 28 fatalities we’ve had this year, eight have occurred in that area command," he said.
In the few days after that interview, two more people died in car crashes bringing LVMPD’s year-to-date fatality total to 30.
"To kind of put that in perspective, we’ve had 19 murders," Lt. Ficklin said. "So we’ve had more people killed on the roadways."
Ficklin says focused speed enforcement actions are not set up to trap people, but to enforce the marked speed limit.
"We stopped six vehicles that were doing triple-digit speeds," said Ficklin. "And the top speed that day was 121 miles an hour of people coming into Las Vegas. That area out there is marked 65 miles an hour."
The Nevada Office of Traffic Safety reports a 47% decrease in deaths this March compared to last year.
Officials believe that was largely due to the decrease in traffic volumes across the state, prompting Breckon to ask, "Why now?"
"Why now at a time like this are they giving tickets? There’s other things they can do. I just think the timing is bad," he said.
Police say the timing is just right.
"'Pandemic speeders' is a term that people are starting to use. Are you seeing motorists take advantage of less traffic to go too fast?" Spears asked.
"Yes," responded Ficklin, adding that because roads are more open, people feel more free to open up on the interstate and side streets.
"We’ve had six fatal collisions occur since the shutdown. Of those six, four were excessive speed-related," he said.
"And we’re taking all these extraordinary measures [to protect ourselves against coronavirus], but people don’t see a problem with jumping in their car and speeding down the roadway," he added. "Which not only endangers them but endangers others."
"They see it as doing part of their job but they haven’t taken a look at the human side of it, where people are sick, people have fear, people don’t have money," said Breckon. "And now they have this to worry about."
Ficklin understands that, saying, "From the person receiving the citation or a person from the outside looking in, it may seem heartless."
He explains that they’re not writing citations because they’ve got nothing better to do or because higher-ups are telling officers to increase their ticket tally.
"A lot of people think that, oh, it’s the end of the month, you guys need to write more tickets for pay or whatever," he said. "We get absolutely no revenue from the tickets we write."
Courts set traffic ticket costs and the money goes to fund the court system, which is currently on hold.
"At the current moment there’s no traffic court going on so obviously all of this is going to be pushed back anyway," Lt. Ficklin said.
Also, last week, in an effort to limit coronavirus spread, Las Vegas Justice Court suspended enforcement of about 270,000 traffic cases in warrant status until 60 days after the governor’s stay-at-home directive is lifted.
That means anyone who has a traffic warrant won't be held accountable at this time.
Still, Breckon thinks traffic stops should be handled differently.
"If you want to slow traffic coming into Las Vegas, do what Nevada Highway Patrol does."
He’s talking about staging an unoccupied car as a deterrent or using freeway signs to warn people to slow down.
"At a time like this, when so many people are out of work and don’t have incomes, has there been any discussion about issuing warnings instead of expensive tickets or is that not effective?" Spears asked.
Police say warnings are forgettable. Tickets are not.
"If I issue a citation, I can guarantee you’re going to have to think about it at least three more times," said Lt. Ficklin. "Because you’re thinking about it at the time I give it to you, you’re thinking about it at the time you have to go to court for it and you’re thinking about it at the time you have to pay the penalty."
Breckon argues that there’s something else to consider during the coronavirus pandemic.
"So they have an officer that pulls over a car," he said, "they have contact with the car, with the occupants of that car. What if that car has a COVID-19-positive person in it?"
That’s how Nevada Highway Patrol is looking at things right now.
This month was NHP's turn to lead Southern Nevada’s targeted enforcement, but the agency canceled the operation due to COVID-19.
NHP says it’s still enforcing traffic laws but limiting exposure to motorists and not performing traffic safety task force operations until further notice.
As for LVMPD, Ficklin acknowledged, "We do have a concern about the contact we have to have with the public."
"They don’t need to make contact," said Breckon. "They don’t need to pull people over, but they’re putting themselves at risk."
As of April 21, 14 LVMPD employees had tested positive for COVID-19 with nine test results still pending.
LVMPD’s website doesn’t detail how those employees contracted the virus.
"There’s nothing that any of us motor officers would love more than to be able to cruise around the valley, have an officer presence and enjoy riding in the weather, and not have to make contact with people," said said Lt. Ficklin. "But we can’t stop policing."
And to his point, the department has seen another rising crime during the pandemic—street racing—which has led to increased complaints from residents in areas like Hollywood and Washington, the west end of Alta and on the Strip.
"We had a truck and a Mustang going over 100 miles an hour northbound on Las Vegas Boulevard, right by the Welcome to Las Vegas sign," said Lt. Ficklin. "So there’s no place in the valley that’s impervious to what’s going on with the speeds right now."
Though hitting motorists in the wallet might not sit well right now, LVMPD and NHP say the only goal is to make our roads as safe as possible, emphasizing that no one should expect a free pass due to the pandemic.
Their message: slow down and arrive alive.
105 is not the new 65. Statewide, we’re seeing speeds that are unprecedented. It’s a misconception to think that speeding doesn’t affect anyone else and that we’re out here trying to generate revenue. Our mission is to save lives. Travel safe, travel responsibly, arrive alive. pic.twitter.com/TD5iqhgFzv
— NHP Northern Command (@NHPNorthernComm) April 24, 2020