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Placebo police patrols
Ghost officers effective at slowing down traffic
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Manteca’s latest weapon against crime isn’t a high-tech gadget.

It is a police car. More accurately, it is an empty police car.

The Manteca Police Department has started deploying unmanned police cars in strategic locations around town where speeding, crime and vandalism have been a major issue.

The goal is to keep people guessing whether there is an officer nearby.

It could be the case even if the units that Manteca Police spokesman Rex Osborn dubs “placebo police” cars are indeed unmanned. Another marked unit could be lurking nearby to catch somebody who is still brazen enough to speed, vandalize or commit any crime while a police unit is nearby.

There have been cases where the department parked an unmanned unit in an area with speeding and at another time with an officer in the vehicle. Both have been effective at deterring crime.

One such placebo unit was parked on Cottage Avenue on the southern side of the Highway 99 overpass on Monday effectively getting traffic to slow down to 30 mph in an area where it is not uncommon to have cars travel at 45 mph. The radar speed sign is often placed near the location but to observers Monday it wasn’t nearly effective as the car.

The problem with ignoring a car assuming it is a “placebo unit” is the fact Manteca’s motorcycle traffic officers often work that stretch of road. Ignore the placebo police unit and push your luck and you substantially increase the likelihood of getting nailed with a speeding ticket.
Addressing speeding has been a high priority for Manteca Police Chief Dave Bricker.

Since the department has had to keep 15 positions vacant due to budget constraints, the department is constantly looking at other ways to stretch their effectiveness.

When it comes to traffic safety, the placebo patrol cars are just part of the strategy. The city is moving forward with red light cameras that are designed not only to catch blatant violators but also works as a safety device to automatically extend the red sequence for cross traffic if it detects a vehicle running a red light.

Manteca Police have issued 3,938 traffic citations in the first four months of this year. That is up 3.17 percent over the same period in 2008.

The first four months of this year saw 1,429 moving violations issued.

The vast portion of a ticket – well over 80 percent once court costs are factored into the equation – goes to the state and the county court system. Cities essentially can’t issue tickets as a way to battle budget deficits.

Bricker has said repeatedly in debates over the red light cameras that traffic citations are made to educate, deter and enhance safety and not to generate money for the city.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail