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Taking aim at speeding drivers

"The sign says 25 mph.Spend the morning watching traffic on Grow Avenue, though, and you might wonder.That guy on the motorcycle is a regular, says Dave Corn, as a biker roars past at 45 mph. Sometimes he'll come around the corner and just whale on it.It's 6:45 a.m. on a Thursday, and Corn and neighbor Bob Conoley are holed up in a van kitted out for comfort, in the driveway of the Grow Village condominiums. Their mission: surveillance.Drivers, they say, like to speed on their street, to the point that they and other residents feel unsafe. To prove their point, they have borrowed a radar gun from Bainbridge Police and set up shop. Recording the make and speed of each passing vehicle, it is a busy morning. There's some beer back there in the fridge, Conoley jokes, settling in.Perched on the van's dashboard, the small radar unit emits a low whistle. The tone goes up in pitch as speeding cars approach, rather like a radio sound effect in an old movie.Isuzu - 37 (mph), says Conoley, and Corn makes a notation on his clipboard.Honda - 42.Mercedes - 37.Despite its obvious residential character - single-family homes, with driveways leading to a pair of modest apartment and condo complexes - neighbors say the road has turned into a thoroughfare for ferry-bound traffic.It does in fact sit along the corridor through which virtually all south-end traffic runs into town - around the head of the bay and up Wyatt Way. Numerous drivers turn south at Grow Avenue to avoid the four-way stop a block further on at Madison Avenue.The latter trend, Corn says, was exacerbated last year, when roadwork brought flaggers to Madison and inspired some motorists to seek out other routes.We noticed at that point that things had really gotten out of hand, Corn says.Several families on the street have children; an older woman lives with her special-needs daughter across the street, the two being frequent if cautious pedestrians.The street has no sidewalks, and shoulders of varying widths.Earlier in the summer, Corn and Conoley monitored traffic from lawnchairs and guessed at speeds. But when he made a slow-down gesture to a passing motorist, Corn says, he waved back, but he wasn't using all of his fingers.So they went to the police, were trained in the use of the radar gun, and refined their methods.The vehicles and drivers have grown familiar. As they watch Thursday, a woman in a green Suburban drops off her son, who catches a ride with a driver waiting on a side street; a day earlier, Corn says, the boy was behind the wheel of the Suburban, speeding north up the street.About a third of the cars that pass are going at least 10 mph over the posted limit.This is mild compared to Ferncliff (Avenue), Corn says. You don't need a radar gun to see that that's virtually a speedway.The radar gun whistles again, and an SUV goes past at 40 mph.Just when you think it's slowing down, Conoley says.The copsSo why aren't the cops doing anything about speeders?They're doing what they can, says Bainbridge Police Chief Bill Cooper. And while how much enforcement is enough enforcement may be subject to debate, tickets are being written.Department records show that from Jan. 2 through June 14 of this year, Bainbridge Police officers issued 924 traffic citations, about 170 per month.About 50 percent - 461 citations - were written for speeding violations.Other popular offenses were related to vehicle registration and failure to carry proof of insurance. The balance comprised everything from running through stop signs and signals, to tailgating or driving on the wrong side of the road, to equipment violations.But the issue everyone complains about is speed, and the Grow Avenue folks are by no means alone in their complaints. Cooper said the department has identified 61 problem areas around the island, areas where neighbors have lodged repeated complaints about chronic speeding.The list includes Sunrise, North Madison, Blakely, Crystal Springs, Fort Ward - basically, every main road on the island, and numerous residential streets.The problem, Cooper said, is manpower.The department has 20 commissioned officers, 14 of them assigned to patrol duty over three shifts. About 19 hours out of every day, there are only two officers on island roads; others punched in are involved in investigative work or other duties. And 60 percent of calls received - domestic violence, assaults and the like - require more than one officer in response. That leaves huge gaps without sufficient staffing to patrol the roads themselves, let alone have an officer park at the roadside and give an emphasis enforcement with the radar gun and ticket book.We will work the complaint areas, Cooper said, but given our limitations, it's going to be hit or miss at best.The department does have an electronic billboard that can be affixed to a radar-equipped patrol car and left at a wayside, displaying the speed of passing drivers in a sort of motorist, police thyself approach.But the sign hasn't been used in years, and Cooper insists that it must be manned to be effective and to protect against vandalism.We wouldn't have a reader board, and we wouldn't have a car. They wouldn't last 10 minutes, he said, noting that a similar setup used by an Eastside department was recently destroyed by vandals with shotguns.At this week's city council meeting, Cooper is expected to ask for a $6,800 budget amendment to purchase a new radar billboard. The trailer-mounted display will track not only speeds, but also the number of vehicles passing, providing more traffic data for city engineers.But for want of an officer, Cooper may solicit citizens like the Grow neighbors to man the apparatus.There are people in the neighborhoods who'll help, he said. And we're going to come asking pretty quick.The budgetStill, what Cooper would really like is to put one officer on traffic duty full-time during daytime hours. But that won't happen without a new cop on the force.That costs money - starting salary for new officers is $39,000. And with the city hobbled by I-695 cuts to state shared revenues, money is not necessarily forthcoming.Last year, Cooper secured grant funding to cover half the salaries of two new officers over a three-year period, but the city council only approved one of the positions. Moreover, the council has been generally sensitive to public perceptions about the growth of the city staff - to the point that the new city hall was designed deliberately small, as a symbolic and practical cap on the growth of local government.And of course, some will say the police department is already too big.The department has grown to meet the service demands of the all-island city, but its 33 percent growth in full-time equivalent positions since 1993 - 25.3, up from 19 - is modest among city departments. (By comparison public works staffing has grown 48 percent over the last seven years, with the planning staff up 74 percent.) The city has generally used a staffing standard of one commissioned police officer for every 1,000 island residents. That makes the wildcard in the mix the upcoming census results, expected to show that the island has 23,000 residents or more, compared to the current official population of about 20,000.With 21 commissioned officers (only 20 of the positions are now filled), that could leave the city, by its own standards, several cops short. But Cooper and Mayor Dwight Sutton agree that staffing goals for next year will be based on overall police activity, not just on the officer-to-citizen ratio, and not just on traffic concerns.I don't think it's a good strategy to say (to citizens), 'we'll give you the lowest tax levy, but you'd better go out and buy a few guns and block your doors,' Sutton said. And this is a demanding community.With total calls to police up 10.4 percent over last year, Cooper thinks he can make a case for at least one new officer in next year's budget, and maybe two. The department, he said, ran through this year's overtime budget by May.We're stretched, and the kids are getting tired, Cooper said. The neighborsBack on Grow Avenue, it's approaching 7:45 a.m., and Conoley is ready to head down Winslow Way to his law practice.But even if he and his neighbors can demonstrate a problem with speeders - 172 drivers out of 283, clocked over 2-1/2 hours at different points in the day - the fear is that more traffic will soon show up.In mid-August, the city will begin a trial traffic calming project on Madison Avenue, from Wyatt Way to Winslow Way, with a series of barriers and striping to slow drivers. Conoley fears that will just divert more drivers to Grow.The city's answer: trial calming measures on Grow as well, although nothing on the order of the Madison changes. City Administrator Lynn Nordby said city crews will adjust the fog lines on Grow, widening the shoulders and narrowing the lanes.The neighbors would like more, perhaps a stop sign at Shepard Way.You'd get a lot of complaints, Corn says, but something needs to happen.With the morning ferry's departure, Grow Avenue traffic thins, and the surveillance is over......Almost - the radar gun whistles again.Motorcycle - 19, Conoley says, looking up. The guy must be sick.Or he just got a ticket recently, Corn answers.Down the road, the rider comes into view - a woman age 65 or so, draped in a rain slicker, astride a humble scooter.Conoley and Corn chuckle. At least one motorist on Grow Avenue isn't speeding."

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