After slamming on the brakes at the sight of a cop car on the side of the road, Sarasota motorists may notice something peculiar about the patrol vehicles: There is nobody inside.
“It’s a little bit of an outside-of-the-box theory,” Sarasota Police Department spokeswoman Genevieve Judge said. “It’s to show there’s a police presence in the city.”
Though Judge pointed out that you can’t tell if an officer is inside a vehicle when you’re driving 60 mph, the cars aren’t just intended to trap unsuspecting motorists.
The unoccupied vehicles, first used in April, are a general crime-deterrence technique, part of the department’s efforts to emphasize preventing crime rather than fighting it after it’s occurred.
By placing the cars in areas where they believe crime is likely to take place — whether it’s to combat prostitution on the North Trail or cut down on speeding in a hotspot — the department can have a presence without necessarily employing an officer, Judge said.
There aren’t any hard figures on whether the tactic is working, but Judge said there’s been positive anecdotal feedback from business owners in areas near unmanned vehicles. She said the business owners have indicated that people in the area took note of the cars.
After seeing a police vehicle, Judge said, the decision-making process for would-be criminals could be altered, even if an officer is not present in the area.
“It just makes people do that double take,” Judge said. “‘Is there a police officer in there? Maybe I need to think twice about what I’m doing.’”
Judge said the cars are all functioning, and that they’re periodically moved around the city during the day.
The cars double as pool cars, serving as backups when regularly used patrol vehicles are out of service. Overall, she said, there are anywhere from five to 10 unmanned cars stationed at a time at various points throughout Sarasota.
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