Capt. Patti Minutello, Commander
Sgt. James Anderson, Traffic Division


Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, December 5, 2004
(Television interview conducted November 23, 2004)

Sgt. Anderson - Capt. Minutello     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Capt. Patti Minutello, commander of the SCV Sheriff's Station, and Sgt. James Anderson, the deputy sheriff in charge of the station's traffic division. The interview was conducted Nov. 23. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: We often talk about our remarkably low crime rate in Santa Clarita, yet we seem to compensate for it in reckless driving and traffic collisions. Is it really true that on a per-capita basis we have worse drivers than other places?

Minutello: I don't think that's necessarily the case at all. I think based on the population we have here, we do have very safe drivers. We have a lot of traffic, which attracts a lot of the attention from the community, but the traffic accidents themselves are not any higher than any large metropolitan area.

Capt. Patti Minutello
Capt. Patti Minutello
    Sgt. Anderson (is) in charge of our traffic at the station, and he's heavily involved with keeping the traffic statistics and what trends we're seeing in the valley. I don't think you disagree with me on that issue, would you, Jim?

Anderson: No, not what with the population that we have, and the strives that we've made to make it a little bit safer by increased enforcement. So, you see that a lot of people in our valley are going to have contact with law enforcement with speed issues or traffic-related issues, and we try to do that, to make them more aware of safe driving patterns.

Signal: You can't really go over 30 mph in the San Fernando Valley; would you say that our wide-open stretches and our high speed limits, like 50 mph on Soledad Canyon Road, lend themselves to worse accidents?

Anderson: Some of the collisions we have seem to be a little bit more severe because of the speeds that we're able to get up to, but I think, a lot of cases, the speed that they're going, they seem to be above the posted speed limit. So if we could reduce that, by traffic enforcement and more citations, then people are more aware of their surroundings, and the engineering aspects of the roadways actually lend themselves to the little bit higher speed limits.

Signal: If the posted speed limit is 50, the really bad accidents happen when people are doing 70?

Anderson: Correct. We have people that are going way above their driving capabilities or they are speeding and racing, which we've had a little bit of influx in the last two years. But we're trying to get that down to where it's a little bit more manageable.

Signal: Would you advocate lowering speed limits from 50 to, say, 35, if it meant speeders would be doing 50 instead of 70?

Minutello: I don't think that's the issue. I don't think that will make much of a difference. Before (officials) even arrive at a posted speed limit, they do a traffic engineering study, a traffic survey, and it's based on what the state says you can (implement) for a certain area, for a volume of traffic. They do extensive studies to decide how fast the public is traveling on those streets, and that's how they (derive the speed limit). I don't think whatever speed limit we are going to make some of the streets — they're still going to drive fast, just based on the nature of the street and the nature of the driver. So, I don't think lowering of the speed limit is going to make that much of an impact on some of these areas.

Signal: Some of our intersections seem to be accident-prone, like in downtown Newhall where San Fernando Road, Railroad Avenue and the train tracks converge. Are some of our intersections and roads inherently unsafe?

Anderson: I don't think that we can just say that they are inherently unsafe. Something that the city of Santa Clarita got when they became a city is, they got all these roadways from a Los Angeles County plan that was made 30 years ago. They didn't have the outlook of the population that we're going to have. And you can see that the city engineers have made really a lot of careful thought into signage, the way that the signals are timed, and things like that to make it safe when you're approaching it.

Sgt. James Anderson
Sgt. James Anderson
    Most of the intersections have protected phases, which means that all lights turn red at a certain particular time, so you know you're not going to be running a red light, or when you go on a green it's going to be safe to do that. All of the engineers who work at the city have really given that a lot of thought, and that's where they spend a majority of their time, is making these intersections safe and then going out and looking at these collision trends and seeing if there's something that they missed or if (there is) something that the public is doing that we can do better to make it safer for them.

Signal: The new red-light traffic enforcement cameras have been a hot topic. How effective are they?

Anderson: I think we found that initially, they have become very effective. I don't think you can go to a community out there who doesn't know that there are red-light cameras in the Santa Clarita Valley. I know that after we put them in, we had the hopes that it would end all traffic collisions in those intersections, and looking at the collisions in the past three months, we haven't found any that were red-light running. So, it's making people aware; we have had a large incidence of citations, but I think it's an educational process.
    We are educating the public at leaps and bounds with citations, and it's a very expensive lesson. I think when you get a citation for $341, you might share that with your friends and neighbors and especially your family. So it's not just impacting that one driver; it's impacting their whole family and hopefully their friends or co-workers.

Signal: There was an assumption that the red-light cameras might cause more rear-end collisions if drivers stop more abruptly at these intersections rather than "shoot the yellow." Have you seen more rear-end collisions?

Anderson: No. We looked at that very carefully. We are continuing to look at that. We haven't seen an increase in rear-end collisions approaching any of the intersections that we have the red light cameras at. Nor have we seen it at any of the other intersections, either...
    Once we put in those cameras, (we knew) they're going to affect intersections around them also, because people aren't sure that if it's just at that one or if it's at another. And we're happy to say that it hasn't been really affected by that. And everyone who calls me and says that they went on a yellow, or they thought they were going to be rear-ended — you look at the videotapes, because we do have videotapes associated with each citation, and it's usually not the case. No one is following them; no one is too close in front of them. It's just the fact that they were in too much of a hurry, on the cell phone, doing something else, and they just simply are running these lights.

Signal: So the camera takes still photographs and video?

Anderson: Yes it does. It takes several still photos — it takes three still photos. It takes one of your face, one of the car as the light turned red behind the limit line showing that clearly the light is red — clearly the car is behind the limit line, which is the violation. Then it takes another photo of the vehicle as it crosses the limit line, somewhere out in the middle of the intersection. It also captures the front and rear license plate, and then it takes a six-second prior-to-the-violation video and six seconds after-the-violation video — so, a 12-second loop of video that shows the approach, the light changing — usually from green to yellow and then again to red — and then it shows the vehicle just passing right through.

Signal: Is there a flash when the camera takes a picture?

Anderson: Yes, there is.

Signal: So you know if you've been caught.

Anderson: In the daylight you can see it, but at night it kind of lights up the sky.

Signal: It seems a whole cottage industry has grown up around these cameras. There's this Photo Blocker product that you spray on your license plate to make it reflective so it blinds the camera when the flash goes off. Is it legal and does it work?

Anderson: It's not legal and it doesn't work. It does cost about $39; if you want to go out there and spend $39, be my guest.

Signal: But you have the video anyway.

Anderson: It doesn't work. We do have it on video, and we've taken — I think it was Costa Mesa or somebody down in another area which has the same system that we do — bought a can of it, sprayed it on license plates, ran it through several times in the daylight and at night, and it had no effect.

Signal: Humans actually process the traffic ticket, right? What do you look at?

Anderson: There's a minimum criteria before the citation is issued. We have to know that, one, the violation occurred. So we look at those pictures — that it stood behind the limit line when the light is clearly red; we view the video; we view that we have a clear shot of a person actually behind the wheel. There are other criteria that we have for the processing of it, given to us by the Vehicle Code. And then all of that is usually sent to myself or my investigator, Tony Arnold. We view all of those things, and we issue the citations ourselves.

Signal: What would cause you not to issue a ticket? Like, if the camera caught the mayor?

Anderson: No, actually, if the mayor did that, I'd call him up and let him see the video.

Signal: Are there specific examples when you've decided not to issue a ticket?

Anderson: Well, Yes. There are times when either I can't see a clear face — because either it was raining too hard (and) at that particular second in time, the window is too fogged or there was just enough rain where I couldn't see it — then I can't safely issue that citation.

Signal: You might need to go to court and prove that the particular individual was behind the wheel.

Anderson: And I'm not going to take that kind of chance.
    We also have on-duty Fire Department, or on-duty law enforcement, who have gone up to that intersection using the red lights and siren, and they go through the intersection. I get those photos, also.

Signal: It has been three months now. Are people getting a clue? Week to week, are you beginning to see a reduction in violations?

Anderson: It really hasn't gone down. I did notice that there is a lot more pass-through traffic than I thought we would have from other communities, and I don't think those types of violations are going to go down as much as the residents' will, because (the residents are) kind of attuned to what's happening around us.

Signal: The city is using the cameras at five intersections and has a contract for 20; are they going to install them at the other 15 intersections now?

Minutello: I think what the city's doing right now is assessing the program itself to see how effective it is, how many tickets are actually being issued, and then they're making the decision based on that. ... Because the overall goal of this plan of the photo enforcement cameras is to reduce traffic collisions; it's to reduce unsafe driving in the city. If we can do that with the five cameras, I don't think the city sees the need to have to add any additional ones.

Signal: The holidays upon us; another problem is drunk driving. Is it more particular to one social class or age group, or is it across the board?

Minutello: It's across the board. The last year, since Sgt. Anderson took over as our traffic sergeant over a year and a half ago, he has been conducting regular saturation patrols and DUI checkpoints,, and we have been very successful. I think our DUI arrests have gone up because of that.
    We're very vigilant — it's an area of driving that we really want to see decreased. So, again, the only we can do that is to have increased enforcement, and we have been doing twice a month —

Anderson: We just started twice a month again. Prior to November — we just got a grant from the (state) Office of Traffic Safety for $311,000. ... About 90 percent of that is going to go directly to DUI enforcement. And we're going to have one saturation patrol and one DUI checkpoint per month, as well as a couple other operations per month.

Signal: What is a saturation patrol?

Anderson: A saturation patrol is when I hire about four extra deputy sheriffs to go out in the field — or actually units, eight deputies — to go out in the field and focus specifically on DUI enforcement. Their only goal that evening is to contact and arrest people who are driving under the influence of alcohol.

Signal: What should people do if they observe someone driving erratically, possibly under the influence?

Anderson: They should call us. That would be something that you should know — your local law enforcement number, the 255-1121 number, (if) you're inside the city limits of Santa Clarita, so that you can get directly to our desk.
    If you call 911 ... you get the Highway Patrol. Then they'll transfer that call to us, but it's a little quicker if you know the direct line.

Minutello: You get delayed once if you call the CHP; there's a delay in getting the information to us. It's important, like Jim said, that you do call us directly in those instances...
    We had, last Friday night, in conjunction with the CHP, we did do a DUI checkpoint and I think we made eight arrests —

Anderson: We arrested six through our DUI checkpoint. The California Highway Patrol was also there, and they had two, plus one person who had gotten arrested for the possession of narcotics. So it was an effective night.
    As well as ... arresting those six people, we contacted about 1,400 motorists. We want the motorists to know that we're going to be out there, that if they do decide to drink, they shouldn't drive. We give them a handout on what happens if you do get arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. And hopefully, contacting 1,400 people is going to make a little bit more of an impact than just arresting those six.

Signal: Thinking of the holidays, last Christmas you dressed up Deputy Joe Trejo as Santa Claus to see if he'd get run over while trying to walk across San Fernando Road. Fortunately, he didn't. What exactly is the rule about stopping for pedestrians?

Anderson: The rules is that if you're driving down the street and you see a pedestrian entering the roadway, you're supposed to come to a stop and let them get all the way across the street — unless there's a divided highway. So on some places like Bouquet (Canyon Road), where there's an actual center divider — once he meets the center divider, then you can continue. So you have to make a complete stop.

Signal: So, for instance, on Valencia Boulevard, just outside the sheriff's station, there's a left-turn pocket and a narrow strip of raised concrete. That's what you mean by a divided highway in this case?

Anderson: Correct. But if you look at Magic Mountain Parkway — the same intersection — that doesn't have a divided highway, and it's just as wide. So you do have to wait till that pedestrian reaches the curb.

Signal: When you talk about a pedestrian "entering the roadway," you mean stepping off the sidewalk?

Anderson: Correct.

Signal: What can you legally "ride" on a sidewalk? Can you ride a bicycle? A motorized scooter? A skateboard? Roller skates? Those shoes with wheels in them?

Anderson: The sidewalk is for pedestrians. A pedestrian is not somebody riding a bicycle. A bicycle is supposed to be on the street or on a bike path. Motorized scooters are not allowed on sidewalks or on streets with a vehicle speed limit above 25 mph.
    There's the scooters and the little pocket bikes; pocket bikes are just completely illegal for the roadway in Santa Clarita as well as L.A. County and California. So don't go buy those.

Signal: Not a good Christmas present.

Anderson: Not a good Christmas present. We'll be having a little more information on that; they're just a bad things. You can ride Rollerblades, roller skates. Those little wheels on the bottom of your shoes are OK; you're considered a pedestrian, then.

Signal: Isn't there a rule that you can't blast your car stereo so it can be heard beyond a certain distance?

Anderson: It's 50 feet. The rule is 50 feet...
    That law has recently changed so that it's not a violation of the Vehicle Code any longer, but there are other laws that have to do with that same aspect — with nuisances, and being annoying. But the decibel level on all that has been taken out of that.

Signal: It seems like a lot of Santa Clarita's traffic safety programs target younger drivers. Why is that?

Minutello: I think that started because several years ago we had so many teenage drivers who were losing their lives in traffic accidents, and the city was very concerned about that. So, in conjunction with our department, we were trying to come up with different ways to make teenagers more aware of their driving habits, making them safer drivers on the road. We don't want to see any more teenage drivers killed. We just don't...
    We've all been teenagers. The first time you get your license you go out there and you think you're invincible — that you can do anything, and nothing's going to happen to you because you are young. We didn't want to see any more of that occurring in the valley, so we started working on different programs. We have the Every 15 Minutes program, which as been an extremely effective program and very successful throughout the entire valley —

Signal: Targeting youth drunk driving —

Minutello: Targeting drunk drivers. It's an emotional program from start to finish with everybody's that involved with it. It's very effective in that regard, because you see what happens; you see the aftermath of an accident where somebody loses their life. And it's not just the families, but the fellow students of the person who plays the role of the person who was killed the accident.

Signal: Do you have some way to measure the program's effectiveness?

Anderson: I think so. The number of DUI-related deaths in the valley has diminished. One of the things I really like doing is, you get an opportunity to go out in the field, and we go to different events, and I have people coming up to me, and they are young people, maybe 18 or 19, who have graduated from one of our schools. A young lady came up to me a little while ago (and) I asked her if she had gone through the program, and she said she had. I asked her if it made a difference to her. And she said, you know, it really didn't make a difference in her choices, because she had already decided that (it had been her) choice that she wasn't going to do that. But it did make a difference in who she hung around with, who her friends were going to be, and she has made that kind of a choice.
    We're not going to stop all underage drinking, but through the STTOP program, through the Every 15 Minutes program —

Minutello: White Ribbon Week; we also have the MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) trailer that we got that actually displays a car that had been involved in a fatality. That's very overpowering, when you look at this car and you realize that somebody had actually lost their life in that vehicle.

Signal: What is the STTOP program?

Anderson: That's the Sheriff's Teen Traffic Offenders Program.

Signal: It targets teenage drivers?

Anderson: It targets all drivers. It does have the word "teen" in it because teens are the one group that we think we can make a difference with. If we have a 40- or 50-year-old driver who's been driving the way they've been driving for long period of time, we don't have as much impact on the way they're going to be out driving in the streets. We're hoping that we're going to change the total aura of how they're driving for years and years to come. That's why teen is a major issue for us, because we think we can make an impact with them.

Minutello: But we've actually received phone calls on the STTOP hotline (1-877-310-STOP) ... involving adult drivers. We encourage anybody to call that hotline if they see anybody driving erratically or in an unsafe manner.

Signal: What is the drug of choice in the high schools?

Anderson: Unfortunately I think it's marijuana. Marijuana is the No. 1 choice for teens who go out as well as alcohol, but what we're seeing in the schools is marijuana use. ... Marijuana is a gateway drug, and that's kind of a new term that everybody uses. But it does seem to, when they get bored with that or when they're in the same crowds as people using methamphetamines and things like that, that's just one of the steps that they take, that is really a bad choice.

Signal: Councilman Frank Ferry has made the point that parents should know today's pot isn't the same pot they were smoking in high school.

Anderson: The pot that we probably had access to when I was a youth — and growing up in Minnesota, it wasn't very prevalent — but the pot now is about four or five times worse than what we had back then. It's strong. The THC content, the bad drug in marijuana, is so much stronger that it really affects the person detrimentally more than maybe it did in the '60s.

Signal: Is it really a gateway drug? How do you go from pot to meth?

Anderson: I think that it's just the access to it. Methamphetamine wasn't even available to the youth that I grew up with. It's available to our youth. Unfortunately it's going to be in those same crowds that are selling marijuana; they're going to have harder drugs for sale, also. And sometimes, once you've made the choice to do one, what's the difference to go a little further?
    And those drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines really grab you and hold you down. They're not going to let go, and once you get involved in something like that, you're going to have a hard time giving it up.

Signal: How many high schoolers are doing some of the heavier stuff? Is it just a few bad apples?

Minutello: We don't really have any statistics on how many in the high schools — that's something that's not necessarily reported. I know that I have not seen too many kids come through our station, who have come in for that reason. We know it's out there, but we don't see a lot of it on the other side of it.

Signal: How serious is the teenage drug problem? Are parents in denial? Or do we have less of a drug problem than the schools in the San Fernando Valley?

Minutello: I wouldn't say we have less, but I wouldn't say we have more. I think it's probably about the same. Like Jim said, it's accessible. If the kids want to find it, they can and they will.

Signal: We're probably a little more affluent than some other areas; are you finding that kids here have greater access?

Minutello: I think that's the case too. I think in some cases they turn to drugs maybe because they're bored. I think that it's just the way our culture has evolved over the years. From the time that the child is little, they're used to watching TV, they're being entertained. And they're looking for a different outlet for their energy. Sometimes that's just what it is.

Signal: How do our gangs compare to the gangs down below? Are they the same, or are they just wanna-be's?

Minutello: We have some gangs out here. And we have some serious gangs, because obviously we have had some gang homicides over the last two or three years. Not to the extent or the numbers that they're certainly having in South L.A. and that part of the county, but we do have them.
    They're active, but we have our COBRA guys who are very proactive in dealing with the gang issues. They identify them on campus; we have our school deputies who are very active in identifying the recruiting efforts that are occurring on campus, so we can get it started before it really starts a foothold in the community, before more kids turn to that.
    I think what is really positive about being here in the SCV area is, we have so many things available for kids to do. The parks and recreation program is one of the best and finest that I've ever seen. There are just so many different programs supporting venues that they can get involved with, that we can turn them away from that type of activity.

Signal: It has been reported that crime in Santa Clarita went up 8 percent. Are we getting less safe?

Minutello: I don't think that's the case. The city is certainly growing; the entire valley is certainly growing. (In) the incorporated area and the city area, we're close to 240,000 (to) 250,000 people now in this community. Because we're getting more people, yes, the numbers are going up.
    We've had a few more violent crimes, but I'd also like to point out that a lot of those crimes that are occurring, we are making arrests on a lot of those people. A lot of that we're finding is a lot of the criminals are coming from outside the valley. So they're not home-grown criminals, per se. I think — because they hear the same press as everybody else, "They're safe" — they assume that we're not as vigilant in our security and our safety as maybe some other areas. But we're doing our best. When they come up here — (on Nov. 19), for example, we had that bank robbery over on Lyons (Avenue). With the efforts of the deputies and concerned citizens who gave us some critical information, we were able to arrest them, and again, they turned out to be from the Antelope Valley area.
    So yeah, we've had an increase in crime, but we're trying to identify the trends and make sure that we're putting out safety bulletins, especially this time of year. It's critical for people to remember, you're out shopping, you have tons of bags in your hands, you're not paying attention, everybody's harried, in a hurry. Pay attention to your surroundings. Make sure you lock your vehicles. Make sure your close your garage door.
    We find, a lot of people in the valley don't close their garage doors and leave them wide open. It's an invitation. So there are little things we can do to inform the community of steps they can take to make themselves safer.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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