by Pia K. Hansen

They were sitting in the shade of a large maple tree, where the cars going north on Perry Street had no way of seeing them. A few drivers noticed the guy in a baseball cap, shorts and Teva sandals sitting like a slacker on the sidewalk, behind a card table, in the middle of the baking sun. But most drivers noticed too late that he was holding a radar gun. Zap, busted, going 38 mph in a 20 mph zone -- Chachi and his company of 11 Spokane Police Department motorcycle cops just wrote another ticket.

"Whoa, that one is going really fast... hold on... yes, 31 mph in that Toyota going south," said "Chachi," whose real name is officer Jason Reynolds, into his radio. And off went another motorcycle cop, swooping out from the shade on the side street, with lights flashing.

Neighbors were watching curiously from sidewalks and local businesses.

"It looks like we have plenty of entertainment today," said a man who was sipping coffee outside the Shop. "I don't know if I like that laser thing they do, you know, like they are hiding, like what they used to do with the planes. People don't have a chance."

Well, actually, people do -- especially if they read the signs. This stretch of road is clearly marked with a 20 mph sign, and it's crisscrossed by several crosswalks -- one of them a school crosswalk. Small businesses line the street, and there's heavy traffic of children on bikes, foot and skateboards heading to and from the park.

"Mostly, people are happy that we come out," said Sgt. Jerry Hensley of SPD's Traffic Unit. "We don't get that many complaints. I guess people got a little upset after that one time up on 29th Avenue where we wrote a lot of tickets." Actually, Chachi and his team wrote 86 tickets in 86 minutes, according to the press release that came out following that stint.

"Some people think it's wrong, that we are just out to get them, but one of our biggest missions is accident prevention and that's what we're doing," says Hensley, adding that they have stopped releasing the total number of tickets written every time Chachi goes out on a "secret" mission.

Reynolds seemed very busy operating the radar gun and the radio as cars, trucks and buses zoomed by.

"I can tell pretty much just by looking at them who's going too fast," he explained, pointing the laser gun at a large Cadillac. "But we give people a pretty good cushion. It's not like we pull them over just because they go two miles over the limit."

The fastest driver of the day was going 41 mph.

Actually, the first five or six cars were pulled over because the drivers or passengers weren't wearing seatbelts. After the state's new Click It or Ticket It law, it's now legal for the police to pull people over for not wearing their seatbelts. A surprising number were riding without restraints on this Thursday, and the price is the same as if they go 10 mph over the limit: $86.

The traffic unit is currently trying to secure a grant to pay for a special seatbelt campaign later this year. Chachi and his equipment are funded by grants, too.

"It's all paid for by grant money, the laser and everything," says Hensley.

A woman who lives nearby stopped to chat. She says she's happy to see the police do something about traffic in the area. "It's crazy," she says. "Even in the crosswalks you have to jump for your life."

Those crosswalks do leave something to wish for -- like white lines to mark them, for instance. The lines are gone and there are no signs marking them, either -- except for the one by the school.

"That is up to the city's traffic engineers to keep that up," said Hensley. "I'll call them on this one. This is pretty bad."

Chachi has been stationed on Mission Avenue -- where he operated a lemonade stand -- and on Division, where he sat at a bus stop.

"That one was fun," said Reynolds. "People came and sat with me at the bus stop and chatted. There was another time where we handed out Popsicles. I'd say mostly we are pretty popular, except, of course, with the drivers who get tickets."

His $5,000 laser gun makes tracking a car's speed a breeze. Look through the viewfinder, place the bright red dot on the car and pull the trigger -- voila, the gadget shows the speed.

"It's very accurate," said Hensley. "It's what we call target specific. It only measures the thing you point at." The laser gun is so accurate that the motorcycle officers can pull the speeding car over immediately, without having to pace it.

"You can track everything, a bird, a bike, a person," said Hensley.

Reynolds said he's been asked by runners to pace them.

"That was fun. There was a guy who was trying to catch up to his son, I think, and he asked me how fast the son was going," he said. "Another time I clocked someone on a bicycle, without a helmet, going 38 mph down the Post Street hill. If he had wiped out, he would have been toast."

At the end of this two-hour stint, the Traffic Unit had written more than 40 tickets. Sometimes they also get a few drivers with suspended licenses and other infractions.

"It's really about accident prevention through education and enforcement," says Hensley. "Since we started doing this, our statistics show that accidents are way down. I mean, look at that one guy, he came up on the motorcycle so fast I thought he was going to run him over."

Yet another motorcycle cop heads out to pull over a small pickup. The driver of the motorcycle is doing a great job staying right at the speed limit and signaling as he turns.

Reynolds really gets into "character" as the stint goes on. Hensley jokes a little about his enthusiasm:

"Up on 29th he really got into it. I mean, he was walking elderly ladies across the street and everything."

Reynolds was clocking car after car as we spoke.

"Speed is a contributing factor in many accidents," he said matter-of-factly. "We are really just trying to keep people safe."

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