A Labor Day weekend ride-along with the Mar-Mac PD

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Labor Day weekend was part of a special Traffic Enforcement Program (sTEP) period for the Mar-Mac Unified Law Enforcement District, meaning officers joined other local and state agencies in a higher-visibility traffic enforcement effort in support of the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign.

Based around holidays like Labor Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and St. Patrick’s Day, these sTEP “waves” don’t really change a whole lot about how officers normally patrol, said Mar-Mac Police Chief Robert Millin.

“There’s just stuff we don’t stop people for on a regular occurrence, but we do right now,” he explained. Examples include window tint, frames that obstruct license plates or objects hanging from mirrors. 

“Our main focus,” Millin stressed, “is seat belts and impaired driving. We want zero fatalities on Iowa roadways.”

I joined Millin Saturday afternoon, Aug. 31, not long after he and officer J.T. Cunningham had arrested a driver in Marquette who was found with marijuana.

Arrests like this, or for drunk driving, can take as many as three hours to wrap up, he said, when you factor in transport time to the county jail and administrative duties afterward. Luckily, computer programs have made records management and completing paperwork easier.

One of those programs is Traffic and Criminal Software, or TraCS, which collects data and allows officers to create and file warnings and citations, as well as accident and arrest reports.

“There’s a lot of potential for this,” Millin said.

Officers also utilize Mobile Architecture for Communications Handling, or MACH, which allows them to see and communicate with other law enforcement personnel in the area. He or she can mark if they are on a call or traffic stop, instant message another officer or even signal for help.

ShieldWare is another records management system that helps law enforcement with data collection, reporting and administrative needs.

Millin said these programs make duties quicker and more efficient, while also eliminating errors.

“And they’re less intimidating,” he added.

As of Saturday, Millin said Labor Day weekend had accounted for a higher call volume than the previous two weeks, but nothing too extreme.

“There was one arrest last night, then the one today,” he noted.

“But there’s no predictability whatsoever,” he added. “Most people are well-behaved, but, some days, all hell breaks loose. It could be a Friday or it could be a Monday.”

A 2017 Iowa Department of Transportation report estimated that roughly 4,400 vehicles go through the Marquette off-ramp intersection by the bridge each day. 

“It’s not just the everyday residents and traffic,” said Millin. “There’s the casino, motel and Gencor, plus tourists. Effigy Mounds and Pikes Peak bring in a lot of people. Then there’s the transient river traffic too. A lot of that is unaccounted for.”

The number swells this time of year.

“Marquette is probably a good thousand people right now,” he remarked, as we drove past the flea market. 

Although Millin said he typically starts a day by logging into programs, fueling up the car and making any updates to his computer, after that, a shift is never routine. And he wants it that way.

“If I find myself getting into a habit, I try to break it,” he said, in an effort to keep people from predicting when or where he will patrol. 

Millin drives around 40 to 50 miles each day—a lot of that stop and go. While he’s out and about, the most common stops are usually for an equipment violation, speeding or no seat belt.

We stop along the bridge approach, next to the Frontier Motel, for a bit.

“At a spot like this, you’re not going to get a lot of speeders,” he admitted, “and people are going to stop at the stop sign,” which is just in front of us. “But you can get seat belts and registration.”

Over the years, he’s learned what to look for to detect these infractions.

“After you do it for awhile, you pick up certain shapes,” Millin explained.

Soon, officer Cunningham has a vehicle pulled over nearby for having a headlight out.

Millin pulls up behind him.

“With two cars on a stop, there are often questions,” Millin said, “but the big thing is officer safety.”

Millin approaches each traffic stop the same way. He introduces himself, gives the driver an explanation for why he or she was pulled over, then asks for driver’s license and proof of registration and insurance.

“Most people are friendly, and I ask where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Just small talk,” he shared. “It’s a stressful situation for both of us, so I try to make it less intrusive.”

Millin also looks at how many people are in the vehicle, how they’re moving and where their hands are. 

“It’s a dangerous time,” he said. “You not only have to worry about the people in the car, but the traffic. There are a lot of factors.”

Not long after assisting Cunningham, Millin received a call from Postville. A woman involved in a domestic situation was thought to be near Maggie’s Diner. We went to investigate, but found no sign of her.

Soon, another call came in. A woman walking her dogs had reported a suspicious vehicle along the road leading to St. Mary’s Cemetery, in McGregor. We headed up the hill, spotting a silver vehicle but no occupant inside or in the surrounding wooded area.  The registered driver could also not be located at his nearby residence.

We returned to the scene that evening, but by then, the vehicle was gone. 

That didn’t mean the area was unoccupied, though. As we continued up the hill, to the cemetery itself, we spotted two parked vehicles with four individuals standing outside with cameras and other equipment. Millin discovered they were ghost hunting—not a crime, but they were still advised to head back into town.

Our final stop of the night came near the casino around 10 p.m., when Millin spotted a vehicle that did not have a functioning license plate light. Upon further investigation, the driver didn’t have a valid driver’s license either. Millin issued a citation for the license, as well as a repair order for the light.

These heightened enforcement periods not only catch infractions like this, Millin said, but sTEP also provides the police department with $4,200 each year in funding. Last year, that money helped purchase preliminary breath testers, or PBTs, and radar equipment. Over the next few years, funds will help equip the police cars—and officers—with new camera systems.

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