SATELLITE BEACH, Fla. – When firefighter John Pope moved to Satellite Beach almost a decade ago, he was told about the police department's reputation: You don't drink and drive, and you don't speed — "because the guys in black don't play."
But today, Satellite Beach officials say their police department does not aggressively patrol State Road A1A like it used to, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
Rather, officers must shoulder new responsibilities, such as covering for four school resource officers. Patrolling school zones. Working special events. And responding to nearly 7,000 calls for service per year.
While driving children to school about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, Pope watched a bicyclist cross SR A1A by Sun on the Beach — and suddenly, an out-of-control northbound driver rear-ended another vehicle at the crosswalk.
"We see it all the time: California stops in the neighborhood. Twenty miles an hour over (the speed limit) on A1A," Pope told the Satellite Beach City Council that night.
"Just blatant disregard for the safety of our city, and for everyone," Pope said.
To boost traffic enforcement, council members unanimously voted Wednesday to hire two additional police officers and a dispatcher. Police Chief Jeff Pearson hopes to have his new personnel on duty by mid-summer, after the multi-month hiring and training process wraps up.
Cost is $50,657 per officer and $35,788 for the dispatcher. Pearson said this year's department budget will cover the additional salaries because three long-term police employees are retiring.
The $137,000-plus traffic enforcement plan comes on the heels of last month’s SR A1A crosswalk crash that killed Surfside Elementary sixth grader Sofia Nelson. A vehicle struck the 12-year-old at the Ellwood Avenue crosswalk, which was outfitted last spring with pedestrian-activated yellow flashing lights.
Satellite Beach's longstanding reputation for aggressive traffic patrols stems from a May 1992 tragedy that shook the city. Sgt. E. Edward Hartmann, 37, and Officer Philip Flagg, 22, were struck and killed by a drunken driver during a SR A1A traffic stop in front of the former Ramada Inn, where the Oceana condominium towers now stand.
Police conduct an annual memorial service every year near the crash site, and the police station on Cinnamon Drive is named in honor of Hartmann and Flagg.
"I've got to be honest with you. If you would have said to me 10 years ago, five years ago, that I would have people coming up to me and saying, 'We need more cops on A1A,' I would have called you a liar," Pearson told council members.
"Think back, for anybody who's been here more than eight to 10 years. Every time you'd drive up and down A1A, all you saw was police cars and blue lights. I mean, let's face it. We all know the reputation that Satellite Beach has," Pearson said.
Since 2014, City Manager Courtney Barker said 15 bicycle-pedestrian crashes have occurred in Satellite Beach — three of which were fatal. Nelson's crash was the only one that occurred in a crosswalk, Barker said.
The ongoing police investigation into Nelson’s crash may take about 90 days to complete, Pearson said.
Two weeks ago, Mayor Frank Catino sent a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation asking state officials to:
• Reduce the SR A1A speed limit in Satellite Beach.
• Research installing red-light crosswalk signals.
• Add crosswalk signs that warn pedestrians to wait until cars have stopped before crossing.
• Fill in stretches of missing sidewalks along the west side of SR A1A.
• Install a full traffic signal at SR A1A and Roosevelt Avenue, near Chabad Jewish Community Center.
"The speed limit definitely needs to be lowered. There's no two ways about it," Councilman Dominick Montanaro said Wednesday.
"Lights can't be effective when the speed limit's 45, and people are doing 50 or 55," Montanaro said.
Councilwoman Mindy Gibson implored Satellite Beach motorists to obey traffic laws. She said she and her family frequent the Ellwood Avenue crosswalk — and "I have witnessed people blow through."
"Whoever is listening out there, stop at the crosswalks. Just be cognizant of people walking down the road," Gibson said.
"It's not a joke anymore. It's not a game. And these are people's lives that are on the line here," she said.
Monday, Florida Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, filed House Bill 1371, nicknamed the “Turn the Flashing Yellow Crosswalks Red” bill. This legislation would require all Florida flashing-yellow crosswalks not located at road intersections to be equipped with pedestrian-activated red lights by 2024.