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Palo Alto to add traffic officers

A resurrected traffic team to be cobbled from existing resources, police chief says

Newly hired Palo Alto police Chief Robert Jonsen is bringing back a traffic unit to patrol city streets starting in June, he said at the Barron Park Association annual meeting on March 18.

Jonsen, the former chief of the Menlo Park Police Department, will begin by reassigning a lieutenant, and then he will add motorcycle units. Usually, people are more aware of officers on motorcycles and drivers are more mindful of their behavior when the officers are around, he said.

"We will begin to use parking-enforcement officers strategically. We'll also use parking officers for non-injury traffic collisions," he said.

The unit will not take away from parking enforcement, however. The department also is reaching out to neighborhoods to develop strategic parking plans in areas where residents want enforcement, he said.

The traffic unit will build up over time. After adding the lieutenant, there will be two and eventually four officers, he said.

Some residents, particularly in the Crescent Park neighborhood, have voiced concern and frustration over rush hour jams on their neighborhood streets. The backup can last for hours. Motorists engage in dangerous driving by sometimes driving head-on in lanes or cross double-yellow lines to get around traffic on side streets and at stoplights, they said.

The dangerous behavior has grown increasingly as traffic becomes more frustrating. For more than a year, residents have routinely witnessed drivers cut into the oncoming lanes on major streets such as Embarcadero Road to reach left-turn pockets at intersections. The motorists also drive in the oncoming lane on University Avenue in downtown, residents at public and neighborhood meetings and on Palo Alto Online Town Square have said.

Jonsen said he spent long hours in his car in traffic going to and from work in southern California. But while that metropolitan area's freeways are routinely congested, side streets in Los Angeles were not clogged with cars as they are here in Palo Alto.

"Here, it has intensified. The worst part of my day is leaving the parking structure at work," he said.

The new traffic team will attempt to fill a hole that has existed on and off for 18 years. Palo Alto had a traffic-enforcement team of seven officers in 2000, which plummeted to two in 2012 due to budget cuts. The department reinstated a traffic team in 2013 after the economy improved, according to previous Weekly news reports.

In 2016, it disbanded a team of one sergeant and two officers and assigned enforcement to patrol officers, Capt. Zach Perron said. The department has had difficulty finding officers to hire, a regional problem that is systemic due to the high cost of living, department officials have said in the past.

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