Once you’ve made it into that spacious office and behind that big desk, it’s not too likely you’d ever venture back to the front lines.
Apparently, Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas never got that memo.
It’s not that Lucas doesn’t have meetings to go to, budgets to worry about and employees to take care of. He does. But when the county’s top cop hops into his unmarked, sky-blue Ford Crown Victoria to come to work or go home to lunch, he seems to always find time to stop and chat … with a lawbreaker.
In fact, Lucas likely tops the state’s 39 sheriffs when it comes to traffic stops, according to The Columbian’s analysis of 2009 data.
“I feel like I have an obligation to enforce the law when I see something happening in front of me,” Lucas said.
By his own estimation, the law enforcement veteran of 43 years averages a traffic stop a day and issues “one or two tickets a month.”
It’s a rare approach among elected sheriffs, who lean toward administrative and strategic roles, falling away from the tickets, handcuffs and street policing on which many built their careers.
Lucas makes about 220 traffic stops annually.
He hands out about 18 tickets each year.
Explained Lucas: “I’ve got a pair of eyes; I can use them.”
According to some of his deputies and other associates, Lucas regularly arrives late for meetings because, en route, he happened across someone following too closely or changing lanes without signaling.
Asked if that’s true, Lucas, with an ever-so-small smile starting to form, responded, “Occasionally.”
Lucas’ willingness, perhaps eagerness, to make traffic stops is unusual compared with other top bosses. A spokesman in the King County Sheriff’s Office struggled to stifle a laugh when asked if Sheriff Sue Rahr makes traffic stops.
To Lucas, though, traffic enforcement is no laughing matter.
“Traffic is always the No. 1 concern when we talk to people, so I ask deputies to focus on it,” Lucas said. “I’m not going to ask them to do something I’m not willing to do.”
Lucas’ approach is exemplified by his recollection of an exchange he had with a driver he pulled over in a vehicle with expired license plates.
Upon his approach, the woman fired: “Why aren’t you out stopping bank robbers?”
He told her: “We get more complaints about traffic than we do about bank robbers.”
Lucas called “speed and following too closely my biggest pet peeves,” but in reality, they’re more than that.
“I’d venture,” Lucas said, “more people are killed in automobile accidents than all other crimes put together. When I signed on, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the state of Washington. There wasn’t anything excluding Title 46 (the traffic code).”
Lucas, seated comfortably in the soft seat of his blue sedan, periodically taps at the keys of his Panasonic Toughbook, a laptop computer common in police vehicles. He uses it to track the calls his deputies are working and to run lawbreaking drivers’ criminal histories.
He can, and does, read license plates backward and forward. He looks for colored stickers on license plates that signal a license has expired.
If he sees something untoward … he locks in.
On a recent afternoon, Lucas glanced at his dash and then through the windshield at the car in front him. Again, his eyes drifted toward the speedometer and back. He flipped a switch and his car’s emergency lights reflected off the taillights of a red Toyota Yaris. The driver quickly pulled to the side of the road.
She was traveling 12 mph over the speed limit in a vehicle with expired tabs.
After a discussion, he handed her a card with contact information on the back and parted with a simple salutation: “Have a good day.”
The woman was not ticketed by Lucas, who writes citations on about 8 percent of his stops.
“We had a little chat about her speed and I asked her to e-mail or fax me a copy of her renewed license,” Lucas said when he returned to his car.
Among the sheriffs that joined Lucas at the top of the traffic-stop list assembled by The Columbian, many worked in less populous counties with fewer deputies, such as Asotin, Douglas, Island and Whitman.
Statistics indicate traffic patrol is not part of the job carried out by the top bosses in King, Pierce and Spokane counties, where traffic is arguably the heaviest in Washington. King County Sheriff Rahr handed out zero tickets in 2009 and made nary a traffic stop.
“Your sheriff down there is doing it the way we should all do it,” said Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick, who admits he didn’t make a traffic stop last year. “To have a sheriff out there setting the tone, that’s great. Every community wants you out there helping with traffic.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if his statistics are higher than even some of our deputies,” said Sgt. Chad Rothenberger, a CCSO spokesman. “He makes a lot of stops.”
Lucas, a Republican who has been the county’s sheriff since 1990, scoffed at the notion that letting someone out of a ticket is a political strategy. He is running for a sixth term this year. His only announced opponent thus far is jail custody officer Timothy Shotwell, a Democrat whom Lucas defeated in 2006.
Lucas said motivation for making stops is about making roadways safer, not scoring political points.
“Enforcement isn’t about writing tickets,” he said. “The purpose of enforcement is to gain voluntary compliance. Good enforcement is, in fact, a prevention strategy.”
Lucas’ traffic stops often come between his Salmon Creek home and the county jail, where his office is located. Sgt. Scott Schanaker, a sheriff’s spokesman, said in an e-mail, “it would be reasonable to surmise that he has participated in traffic stops his entire career. “
Sometimes when an hour or two opens in his schedule, Lucas said he hops in his car, driving Clark County’s edges in search of speeders, tailgaters and others who might, for whatever reason, pose a threat to drivers around them.
Lucas said life often gets in the way of good driving.
“I once stopped a guy who was speeding and swerving between two lanes,” he said. “He was eating a bowl of cereal on his way to work.
“That requires two hands,” he added, gesturing by holding his own hands above his head like he was on a roller coaster.
Earlier this month, the sheriff was on his way to a meeting when, pulling out of a parking lot, he was cut off by a driver talking on her cell phone while blasting through a stop sign.
The car wasn’t hers; it had expired tabs and she didn’t have proof of insurance. Not to mention the woman’s outstanding warrant for failing to appear in court.
“This is an unmarked car, but it doesn’t take much ingenuity to know that the plain car with four black-walled tires and nine antennas is probably a police car and you shouldn’t go driving past it at 15 mph (faster,)” Lucas said.
It’s not unusual, he said, to stop someone without a driver’s license, insurance or both.
“They just don’t have their affairs in order,” Lucas said. “You would think they’d be more careful not to get noticed. It’s been my experience that people who kind of overlook the little things overlook bigger things.”
Douglas County Sheriff Harvey Gjesdal ranked near Lucas on The Columbian’s list of the top traffic-enforcing bosses.
“I think no matter who an administrator is, it never hurts to crawl down in the trenches and see what the line staff’s doing,” Gjesdal said. “I do a lot of stops where I give a lot of warnings. I do write citations, too.”
Sheriff Tony Hernandez, the top cop in Jefferson County, said he regularly helps patrol deputies.
“It simply comes down to resources,” Hernandez said. “There are times when I actually have to cover a shift. And the public sees it, too. If you’re driving a Crown Vic with all the equipment, it would be unacceptable to pass by.”
Statewide, sheriffs applauded Lucas.
“I think it’s important sheriffs, or chiefs, don’t forget the street,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers.