Given that he was dressed in a hoodie and holding a cardboard sign, many people might have assumed that the man on the side of the road was homeless and panhandling for money. However, while the stranger appeared innocent enough, he’d actually set a trap for unsuspecting drivers.
Bethesda lies within Montgomery County, Maryland. Compared to other places in the state, Bethesda is relatively safe. In fact, according to NeighborhoodScout, the small town is safer than 56 percent of cities in the United States.
The chances of becoming a victim of violent crime is 1,604 to one in Bethesda, compared to 212 to one in Maryland as a whole. However, while the town may be safer than others around the country, it still has its problems.
One area that’s been known for its crime rate is the intersection between River Road and Goldsboro Road in the southeast of Bethesda. And in 2015 a shifty character who appeared on the roadside ended up causing problems for dozens of drivers.
At first glance, the man in question appeared to be homeless. He wore blue jeans, a coat, and a red hoodie pulled up to disguise his face. In his arms, he carried a large cardboard sign and some plastic cups. However, he wasn’t on the carriageway to panhandle.
Instead, the man was undercover and was in the area specifically to catch people out. His intended targets were distracted drivers, and he would end up costing lots of them a fair amount of dollars all in the space of a few hours.
But while the stranger was acting covertly, his actions weren’t completely sneaky. In fact, the cardboard sign he was carrying explained exactly what he was up to. The only problem was that by the time drivers had read it, it was probably too late for some of them to act.
Once drivers got close enough to the piece of cardboard, they would have read, “I am not homeless. I am a Montgomery County Police Officer looking for cell phone texting violations.” And amazingly, the undercover operation paid off.
In the space of two hours, the disguised cop – Officer Patrick Robinson – helped to hand out 56 traffic citations and 22 warnings for a range of offences including the use of a cell phone while driving and texting at the wheel. In Maryland, the fine for using a phone while driving is $83, while getting caught texting on the road will set you back $70.
The undercover scheme was devised by Montgomery County Police after they experienced a spate of accidents that were down to inattentive drivers. In lots of the accidents, the drivers used cell phones, and in some cases, people died.
Speaking to NBS Washington in 2015, Sergeant Phillip Chapin from Montgomery County Police Department revealed, “We’re seeing more and more, as we pull cell phone records, that they’re distracted driver-related deaths because they will not put their phones down.”
But while it was clear more and more people were risking lives by using their cell phones at the wheel, such crimes were hard to spot. As a result, police needed a way to get close to the road without raising suspicions to catch offenders.
That’s where the idea to disguise Officer Robinson as a homeless person came in. Alongside his casual clothes, the cop was equipped with a body camera and a police radio, to catch distracted drivers in action.
Each time that Robin spotted someone he suspected was using their phone while driving, he went behind his sign to alert some uniformed colleagues further up the road. They in turn would pull the drivers over and quiz them on their actions.
While the operation was successful in the eyes of the police, it divided opinion among the public. Some people praised cops for taking on distracted drivers. However, others felt the methods they adopted were dangerous in themselves.
In an email to the police, Potomac, MD, resident Michael Housley wrote, “It is very distracting (and scary) to have a homeless-looking person holding up a difficult to read sign approach your car while coming up to a red light. Perhaps just as distracting as the handheld phone usage you are trying to prevent.”
Housley added, “The first time I noticed this tactic in use, about a month ago, I nearly hit the car in front of me as I rolled to a stop because the creepy homeless looking person was walking up to my car and I was only looking at him and not the car that had rolled to a stop in front of me.”
And Housley wasn’t the only complainant. Susie Sinclair-Smith from the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless felt the police operation was offensive to people on the streets. Writing on Facebook, she said, “I’m speechless.”
Sinclair-Smith added, “I can’t imagine the tone-deaf nature of adopting something like this, and I think it’s disrespectful of people experiencing the condition of homelessness. The fact that the police would use that as a guise — that’s a very serious social problem…. To kind of ridicule people? To me, there’s no dignity about it.”
Whether they liked the police’s tactics or not, most people can agree that something needs to be done about drivers who use their phones at the wheel. Between 2015 and 2017, roadway fatalities in the U.S. increased by 14 percent, and many experts believe that devices are to blame.