The Fair Lawn Police Department's Traffic Safety Unit is back, albeit reduced in size and on tenuous terms.
The force opened 2013 with two officers whose exclusive focus will be handling traffic issues in town, a detail the department hasn't had the mapower to fill in the past couple years.
The two assigned traffic officers, Thomas Check and Louis Failla, have been removed from their 10-man patrol units to focus instead on speeding enforcement, pedestrian safety and providing a regular police presence at district schools. As a result, standard patrol units will now function as nine rather than 10-man crews, Chief Erik Rose said.
Rose said he chose to reform the traffic unit now because he has greater scheduling flexibility with virtually all of his officers currently healthy.
If any officers subsequently retire or require an extensive medical leave, the reassigned traffic officers will return to patrol, Rose said.
"I'm hoping that this will be a fair balance that will allow us to achieve the ends of what our residents want, achieve the ends of not creating excessive overtime and also achieve the ends of having some focused traffic enforcement," he said.
Originally launched in 2004 as an eight-man operation, the traffic unit existed not only to do traffic enforcement and community policing, but also as a bullpen of sorts. When patrol officers were injured or out for an extended period of time, the chief could move bodies from the traffic unit over to patrol to avoid paying excessive patrol overtime. Rose no longer has that luxury.
During the unit's heyday, officers made more stops, issued more traffic summonses and collected more money for the borough from traffic offenders. But the unit's existence was shortlived. The reduction in departmental staffing over the years forced Rose to disband the unit and transfer its officers back to patrol, which has meant less enforcement, fewer traffic summonses and less court revenue.
While patrolmen can occasionally dedicate time to traffic enforcement, it's often inefficient and frustrating for the officers, who remain primarily responsible for responding to calls.
"It's frustrating if I put someone out to do radar and they're getting called off every five minutes," Lt. Derek Bastinck said. "It works a lot better when you can have a guy who is focused and isn't distracted."
Rose's plan seeks to reinstate that more focused approach on a limited basis. As long as Fair Lawn can keep the traffic unit going, Officers Check and Failla will be tasked with providing a more regular presence at schools, monitoring some of the borough's most dangerous intersections and doing pedestrian traffic enforcement in areas with heavy foot traffic.
"We'll see what happens," Rose said. "We're trying to do as much with less."