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Traffic tickets down 92 percent as Florida cops focus on coronavirus

Directives vary among the largest police agencies in the Tampa Bay area. But police leaders say they want to keep the public and officers safe.

While Floridians stay home to limit the spread of COVID-19, law enforcement officers across the Sunshine State are stopping fewer motorists as millions of vehicles remain parked.

Some police agencies also are practicing social distancing by reducing the number of traffic stops officers, deputies and troopers make.

Traffic citations across the state plummeted 92 percent in March compared to March 2019, according to preliminary data from the Florida Highway Patrol. In March 2019, officers issued 163,899 citations for non-criminal violations such as speeding, running stop signs, careless driving and driving without lights. Last month, those violations fell to 13,618, records show.

An unidentified Florida Highway Patrol officer, center, puts gloves while talking to an unidentified male at the scene of a single vehicle rollover crash, right, as another officer looks on Thursday, April 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg. As Floridians remain at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, traffic stops across the state plummeted 92 percent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Directives vary among the largest police agencies in the Tampa Bay area. Law enforcement leaders must balance the need to keep the virus from spreading through the ranks while maintaining public safety. Several have instructed officers to disregard minor violations, but others say fewer cars have triggered fewer citations and accidents.

“Officers are very empathetic with what is going on in America right now,” Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter said. “There’s not a lot of desire to hit someone with a $200 fine.”

Slaughter said he told officers to save their proactive policing for instances that involve life and safety issues or threats to the public. He said he doesn’t want his officers getting sick when stopping people for minor infractions.

Tampa police spokeswoman Jamel Lanee’ said officers are on the street but have discretion to disregard minor violations.

“If it is something that is warranted, people will be stopped,” she said. “We’re still stopping people. You don’t know where COVID-19 is. You have to take the risk.”

In Hillsborough, deputies have also been instructed to not stop motorists for minor citations like expired license plates, the Sheriff’s Office said. Still, deputies will stop drivers who jeopardize public safety, the agency said. Sheriff’s Offices in Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee said no directives told deputies to limit traffic stops, and the agencies attributed fewer citations to more people staying off the road.

Although officers, deputies and troopers must come in contact with people to perform their jobs, they are following guidelines to maintain a 6-foot distance between people.

“Each deputy is equipped with personal protection,” Manatee sheriff’s spokesman Randy Warren said. “They wear masks and gloves when they have close contact with individuals.”

In the Tampa Bay area, officers in Pinellas County issued 762 citations, the most in the five counties. Hillsborough followed with 470. Pasco had 208, Hernando had 146 and Manatee had 291, records show. The March totals could rise because the data is preliminary, the Highway Patrol said.

Lt. Derrick Rahming Sr., assistant chief of public affairs for the Florida Highway Patrol, said the agency is following all recommended protocols and that the “health and safety of the public and our employees remains our top priority.”

In St. Petersburg, the department’s traffic unit would normally target school and speed zones each day and stop multiple violators. But that proactive enforcement is not happening with schools closed and fewer cars on the roads. The unit is now handling crash reports in order to free up patrol officers for an increase in other types of calls, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said Thursday.

“We’ve shifted our resources,” she said. “It’s a very different world we’re in.”

The fewer cars on the road have given some people a motive to drive like Bo and Luke Duke on the famed television series Dukes of Hazard.

“There are people driving recklessly out there,” Slaughter said. “I’ve had to make a few traffic stops."

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