Drivers in Virginia-Highlands be warned: There is an undercover cop waiting for you in the crosswalk. He's walking back and forth, dressed in plainclothes. He's betting you won't stop.
That's the setup that netted 78 tickets in two December weekends -- and pissed off as many drivers. Having failed to come to a complete stop while the cop (looking every bit like a Highlands shopper or bar-hopper) meandered across Highland Avenue, the drivers were flagged down, herded into a CVS parking lot and ticketed for failure to yield to a pedestrian. The $100 citation could tack three points onto their driving records.
The pedestrian crosswalk sting pleases groups like the Virginia-Highland Civic Association and the Atkins Park Neighborhood Association, who think it's too damn hard to cross the street.
"It gives you a fright when you try to walk across North Highland," says Stephen Luben, the civic association's public safety chairman. "We all need to remind ourselves that pedestrians do have the right of way."
It was Luben who told police a few months ago that something needed to be done to slow down cars in the hustle-bustle neighborhood. As a result, Atlanta police hatched "Targeted Pedestrian Enforcement."
"There's some cities you go to where both pedestrians and the car drivers know when to stop and when to go," says Maj. Carlos Banda, who oversaw the sting. "Unfortunately in Atlanta, we've never really educated our people. That's probably one of the reasons why we have a high rate of pedestrians being hit."
No one actually has been hit on the corner of Highland Avenue and Briarcliff Place, at least as far as Banda and Luben know. But the difficulty in crossing at the intersection -- or anywhere along Highland -- was enough to convince police to target drivers there. Banda says the undercover operation in the Highlands will continue for a couple of months. He also has plans to move the sting to Little Five Points and East Atlanta.
Not everyone is thrilled with that prospect. To some drivers, the way in which police are baiting them stinks. And it's not making the roads a bit safer, they say.
"I think there's a small group of people who think it's some huge problem -- and who got the cops involved," says Renata Zappala, who was ticketed on her way to work during a November sting. Zappala, who's lived in the Highlands for three years, considers herself a careful driver who's been subjected to the whims of over-eager neighborhood groups. She hates that she received a ticket (her first ever) for this.
"They're enforcing the letter of the law to some degree that just makes no sense," she says. "You wind up looking for cops, not pedestrians."
Gerry Weber, director of the ACLU of Georgia, says the APD's sting could be misguided but is completely legal, having failed to meet the state's definition of entrapment. State law says entrapment occurs when a government officer "by undue persuasion, incitement, or deceitful means, induced the accused to commit the act which the accused would not have committed except for the conduct of such officer."
"I could imagine that [the sting] could get into a situation where you'd be reaching people who wouldn't have a normal propensity to commit the offense," Weber says. "If the cop is walking so very slow that it would test Job's patience, then it's odd.
"But if they're engaging in normal activity that pedestrians would engage in while trying to catch the folks, that's entirely within their rights."
And police claim it's the only way to beat into drivers' heads the rights of pedestrians.
"Until there's a realization that they can be fined and ticketed for it," Banda says, "then they're going to keep doing it."
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