Cops on the prowl
APD officers take special pride in catching extreme speeders
Traffic tickets line the wall of the Anchorage Police Department’s Justin Wollam substation in Eagle River, representing the 148 offenders caught speeding at 100 miles per hour or more in 2011.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH
Every day, Anchorage Police officers play a real-life game of cat-and-mouse with some of the most dangerous drivers in Alaska. And the baddest cat around these days is patrol officer Thomas Gaulke.
Gaulke, a 16-year veteran of the department, was recently honored by his peers with an unofficial — yet highly sought-after — award for catching more extreme speeders than any other officer on the force.
“I guess I’m in the right place at the right time,” said Gaulke, who nabbed 46 drivers caught traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour in 2011.
Gaulke’s 46 citations were out of 148 such tickets written this year. For leading the department, his peers presented him with the STOP (Serious Traffic Offender Program) Officer of the Year award during a ceremony at the Justin Wollam substation in Eagle River on Dec. 15.
In addition to catching the highest number of extreme speeders, Gaulke also tracked down the fastest lawbreaker of the year, a motorcyclist who was clocked doing 150 mph on the Glenn Highway.
In a video of that incident, Gaulke catches up to the speeder after a brief pursuit. After realizing he’s been caught, the motorcyclist quickly pulls over to the side of the road and is confronted by Gaulke.
“You know why you got stopped, right?” Gaulke asks the young man.
“Sorry about that,” he replies.
Most high-speed drivers are apologetic once apprehended, Gaulke said.
“They know what they’ve been doing when they get caught,” he said.
However, a few turn out to be especially dangerous because they’re also intoxicated. Drunk drivers go to jail, he said, but most of the extreme speeders are sent on their way after getting a hefty ticket.
Anchorage Police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said the man from the video recently paid his fine, which came to well over $1,000 for the brief joyride.
Patrol officers take special pride in catching motorists who travel at extremely high speeds. In fact, traffic Sgt. Justin Doll said most officers will look the other way when they see someone slightly speeding in order to find a “bigger fish” zooming through traffic like an Indy car driver.
The reason is physics.
“The energy in a collision is so much greater at higher speeds,” Doll said, citing the Newtonian equation that states the force of any collision equals the mass of an object multiplied by that object’s velocity squared. In other words, the faster you go, the greater chance you have to injuring yourself or others if an accident occurs.
“It’s especially dangerous, not just to them but to everyone around them,” Doll said.
To illustrate just how dangerous high-speed driving is, Parker recently sent out a press release with a link to a clip from the television show “Mythbusters.” In the clip (view it at http://dsc.discovery.com/videos/mythbusters-100-mph-crash.html), hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman watch as a sedan is propelled into a brick wall at 100 miles per hour. The men are left nearly speechless after the car is reduced to half its size in the blink of an eye. Such a collision would be impossible to survive, Parker said.
“There’s no way,” he said.
Several years ago, Eagle River patrol officer James Conley said he and the other officers who routinely patrol the Glenn — which is where most extreme speeders are caught, Parker said — began keeping an informal scoreboard of who caught the most lead-footed drivers.
“I started posting ‘em on the wall,” Conley said.
Today, a single year’s worth of citations covers an inside room at the Wollam substation like wallpaper. Conley said traffic officers take the competition pretty seriously.
“This is hard fought,” he said.
While the competition might seem silly to some, Conley said it actually has a couple benefits to the public. The obvious one, he said, is that it helps increase the number of reckless drivers behaving badly. But, he said, it also keeps officers looking for big-time lawbreakers, rather than someone going 70 in a 65 on their way to work.
“Everyone benefits,” Conley said.
Not all high-speed drivers spotted by APD are caught. Conley said officers routinely end pursuits because keeping up a high-speed chase would further endanger the lives of other motorists. In those cases, he said many drivers are often tracked down by their license plates.
Conley said the bottom line is that officers are trying their best to remove the most dangerous drivers from among the vast majority of law-abiding motorists.
“It gets the highest risk ones off the road,” he said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org