Question about police rank when it comes to the traffic beat.
June 11, 2008 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Question about police rank when it comes to the traffic beat.

I have always assumed that traffic cops are rather low on the totem pole of the police department. This doesn't seem to jive with the sort of cops that pull me over (which doesn't happen that often): they seem like seasoned veterans of the force, who probably have some seniority. Is my assumption on rank incorrect? There's no short supply of crime in my area, so it's not like there's not enough work to go around. I have a hard time imagining the traffic beat being an attractive mission, unless you were too old to work the more physically demanding jobs and hated desk work. Discuss.
posted by wowbobwow to Law & Government (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Any police officer can pull you over and issue a ticket, regardless of rank. There might be some who are focusing on it during a specific shift (setting up speed traps, etc.), but it's not their exclusive domain.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:36 AM on June 11, 2008


Most uniformed police officers on patrol are looking for instances of crimes or are responding to calls during their shifts. That's what they do. They aren't on fancy stake outs or investigating murders like in the movies and tv. When they see you drive by doing something illegal, they pull you over. Often through routine traffic stops, they get information on a more serious crime or find individuals who have outstanding warrants, so it can be worth their time besides the simple improving of public safety through enforcing traffic laws.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:46 AM on June 11, 2008


"Traffic cops" who stand in the road and direct traffic are generally low-ranking. "Cops who pull you over" to give you tickets for moving violations are not "traffic cops".
posted by nicwolff at 11:54 AM on June 11, 2008


I have a police officer in my family. He has refused promotion several times and even has not taken the Sergeant's Exam for a variety of really good reasons. He has been on the force for over ten years so I consider him to be "seasoned". Here is how he has explained it to me. You accrue seniority as an officer based on your time of service at your rank level. Seniority has several advantages when it comes to job issues such as garnering overtime and scheduling. If he was to move up the chain he would have to restart his seniority and would not get either the shifts or the patrol areas that he wants to. Also, there comes added responsibilities when you become a Sergeant. You have to supervise other police, there is more training responsibilities and direct interface with those higher in the chain of command who really have a lot of different priorities from community policing. This comes with not too hefty of a pay raise. In fact a lot of times he would be taking a pay cut as he would be foregoing overtime.
posted by skewedoracle at 11:57 AM on June 11, 2008


If I were a cop of 20 years or more, I'd rather pull over speeders than stake out meth labs, too.
posted by herbaliser at 11:57 AM on June 11, 2008


Response by poster: Ahem. I left out the detail that it's the cops who sit by the highway with speed radars I consider traffic cops. Regular police driving around on patrols are not in the equation.
posted by wowbobwow at 12:05 PM on June 11, 2008


A former neighbor who was a cop told me once that traffic stops and domestic violence calls are both "everyday" things with the highest potential for getting hurt (as a cop). If you're staking out a meth lab, you probably have lots of other cops with you, and lots of information about who you're staking out. Pulling over a speeder? Not so much.
posted by rtha at 12:07 PM on June 11, 2008


It mostly depends on the size of your city's police department. Rank structure and duty structure vary greatly among departments. My husband has been an officer for 8 years in a department of 12 people. All of the officers do all of the work (from traffic enforcement to major investigations). My husband doesn't outrank the other officers as far as an official job title, but he is considered the senior officer on his shift and the newbies defer to his decisions. The older, seasoned veterans do the same work as the newbies do, and there's no special ranking system to determine who gets dispatched to what.
posted by amyms at 12:12 PM on June 11, 2008


I just saw your addition about the officers who run radar. My answer still applies to that too. In my town, sometimes that's the assignment for the day and other times the officers go do it when there's nothing else going on. It's not something that's tied into rank or veteran status.
posted by amyms at 12:17 PM on June 11, 2008


Realize that some people like the traffic beat. One traffic cop I knew talked about how much fun it was to ride around on a motorcycle all day, staying away from the relatively complex paperwork of domestic calls and so forth.

Moreover, some people like predictability. "Let's see, I'm two years shy of my pension and retirement, I'm not well educated relative to my fellow cops and I have no real ambition beyond retirement besides spending time on my fishing boat. I'll take traffic."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:33 PM on June 11, 2008


Ahem. I left out the detail that it's the cops who sit by the highway with speed radars I consider traffic cops. Regular police driving around on patrols are not in the equation.

I think your terminology is causing come confusion. Generically speaking (rank and structure differing according to location) a "traffic cop" is directing cars through the busy intersection because the baseball game just let out. A "highway patrolman" pulls you over for doing 80 in a 65 even though you were just following the speed of traffic.
posted by desuetude at 12:33 PM on June 11, 2008


My brother is a city police officer and has had a bunch of different "jobs" in his career and he's still just Officer Elendil71 the Younger. Now he's a detective, but that's not a promotion, its just a different job in the department. I think this varies by jurisdiction but according to him, the two cities he's worked for in the past 8-10 years or so seems to work pretty much the same. Sure seniority counts (you dont get moved to detective as a rookie) but a few months ago he still was zapping speeders, busting DUI's and directing traffic around accidents just like any first year cop.
posted by elendil71 at 12:56 PM on June 11, 2008


My brother's a cop. From what I've seen, in his medium sized city, a lot of the folks he works with are happy to spend their whole career without taking an officer's exam. They became cops because they liked driving around, pulling folks over, and responding to calls. If moving on to corporal or sergeant brings with it a lot of hassles and a small salary bump, they'll just keep doing what they're doing. And if it means more desk time and less street time, that might be a deal-breaker, too. There's no rule that says you have to move up the ranks.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:58 PM on June 11, 2008


I left out the detail that it's the cops who sit by the highway with speed radars I consider traffic cops.

Additionally, there isn't just one single "cop" organization either. There are municipal police, county sheriffs, state/highway patrol and each has a different jurisdiction. If you're doing 100 across I-80 in the middle of nowhere, it's the Wyoming Highway Patrol (or whatever state) that's going to pull you over, not the Cheyenne Police Department. The Highway Patrol has a number of responsibilities, but chief among them is traffic enforcement.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:06 PM on June 11, 2008


New York City has a whole traffic enforcement division - i imagine that any cop could issue a ticket here, but i think that most officers are divided up in their policing responsibilities. I saw a blatant traffic violation the other day and a cop standing on the corner didn't do anything about it.
posted by pithy comment at 2:22 PM on June 11, 2008


It depends on how the police organizations are organized. The Illinois State Police, for example, do all manner of police work, but also are in charge of highway traffic patrol.

(This is complicated in Chicago, where both the ISP and the Chicago Police patrol the highways.)

(And further complicated by the fact that the people out directing traffic aren't police officers, but "traffic aides" and have little to no police authority.)

Some states (California comes to mind, but my data might be old) break things up- there is the California Highway Patrol and then there's the California State Police.

Your assumption is also flawed, in that more people die on the roads than any other cause that the police are involved in. So maintaining road safety is a very important policing role, and as others have stated, can make for a very fulfilling policing career.

I would agree, though, that most police officers do start their careers patrolling the roads. But that the officer's rank has very little to do with you, the guy getting pulled over. There is no more or less validity in getting a traffic ticket from an "Officer" versus a sergeant versus a captain.
posted by gjc at 5:22 PM on June 11, 2008


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