Arlington officers ride on school buses, look for drivers who don't stop

ARLINGTON -- Arlington police Sgt. Craig Leondike crouched in his seat behind school bus driver Shirley Allen on Tuesday morning, furtively alerting motorcycle officers of the steady stream of drivers along Cooper Street who passed the stopped bus despite its blinkers and stop sign.

Black coupe, green minivan, he began, describing the vehicles in a low voice.

Like magic, officers picked through traffic and pulled over the offenders.

It was a one-day, one-route pilot program called Officer on the Bus, a cooperative project between the Arlington Police Department and the school district to raise awareness of traffic laws on buses that are stopped to pick up or let off students.

Though the route from the district's bus facility on Arkansas Lane to Bailey Junior High School on Bowen Road near the Park Row Drive intersection had only nine stops, things got busy in a hurry.

Students at nearby apartment complexes along Cooper Street boarded the bus, casting glances at the uniformed officer before moving to the back to sit down.

"Whoa," whispered one. "Cops are here."

Two violators were identified at the first stop on Cooper near Inwood Drive, one passing the bus in traffic and the other coming out of an apartment complex.

Ten offenders were spotted before the bus pulled away.

Disregarding a bus with flashers and stop signs is a copycat infraction, the officer said.

"It only takes one car to do it," Leondike said.

"The rest think that guy ahead of them must know the law."

At least six more cars were pulled over after a second stop on Cooper Street.

Grand total for the morning: 13 citations, 10 for passing a school bus and three for unrelated issues.

All of them occurred during just two of the nine bus stop locations, all on Cooper Street.

By contrast, Arlington officers issued 52 citations for failing to stop or remain stopped for a school bus during all of the last school year.

Leondike was asked about the safety of stopping in the middle of six-lane Cooper Street.

"You should come to a slow cautious stop," Leondike said.

"It's the same thing if a stoplight turns red; you can't tell me then that you were afraid to stop."

Activated bus flashers are yellow before they go to red and the stop sign swings out.

"In my observations, there are 5 to 10 seconds of flashing yellow so they have plenty of warning, just like a traffic light," Leondike said.

"It's a great opportunity to be able to get out there and see the number of violations.

"We'll be doing it again in the future."

These traffic patterns were nothing new to Allen, the bus driver, who came to the Arlington district this year after a stint in Crowley.

"Oh, gosh, this happens a lot," she said of drivers who pass the bus as children are boarding or exiting.

Allen said drivers are much more likely to drive past a stopped bus than speed through a school zone.

The Officer on the Bus program is aimed more at promoting public awareness than at generating traffic tickets, according to a police spokesman.

"Obviously it's morning rush hour, and the key to all of this is getting drivers to pay attention," said Dick Hill, a 30-year traffic officer who introduced the operation early Tuesday. "Most of the time, people say they didn't see the lights flashing or they didn't know they had to stop."

School buses in Dallas and some other cities have been equipped with external cameras to photograph violators, similar to red-light cameras at intersections.

That practice has its critics, among them the American Civil Liberties Union in Connecticut, which opposes a pending state amendment that would allow the external cameras on school buses.

The group says the cameras remove the presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" for ticketed drivers.

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram