Police keeping cruising under control

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 21, 2004

Horns beep, blast and blare up and down the traffic-lined street. Vehicles move at a slow crawl as green light after green light fades to yellow, to red and back again.

Motorists spend much of the time rubber-necking at passersby and the surroundings in the near grid-locked traffic. The occasional profanity splits the air as tempers flare over some perceived wrong.

A big-city traffic jam? No, just a typical Friday or Saturday night in the Ironton cruise line downtown on Second and Third from Center to Adams streets. Many residents and business owners complain about the cruising, but more important, the ancillary side-effects: littering, excessive noise, loitering on business parking lots and criminal activity.

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In June, the Ironton Police put up the proverbial stop sign for the downtown cruisers. Is it working or are the weekend motorists blowing right through?

Why is it a problem?

Cruising is illegal in Ironton as soon as traffic becomes congested. Then, it becomes a public safety concern, Police Chief Bill Garland said. The law enforcement official pushed for the law back in the mid-1990s after he saw first-hand the dangers that could arise.

"We had a boy knifed down there in the cruise line. I sat there for 10 minutes waiting for an ambulance holding his intestines in," Garland said. "We had lots of fights and gangs coming from area schools. It had just gotten out of hand."

Once the law was passed, the IPD began strictly enforcing it. But, as time passed, the manpower waned and the emphasis went with it.

Now, the biggest concern for many residents are the beer bottles, fast food bags, cans and other things that always seems to be left in the cruisers' wake come Monday morning. Borrowing from Aretha Franklin, many downtown residents and business owners just want visitors to show a little "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

"I think people who are for cruising have never experienced the noise and the trash dumping that goes with it," said Tim Gearhart, owner of Tim's News and Novelties that is located Third Street right on the cruise line. "ŠThey have never opened their front door and had urine running down the steps. They would probably have a whole different attitude if they had."

Jerry H. Lyall agrees. The senior citizen has a front-row seat from his home in the Park Avenue Apartments. Lyall also spends a few hours a day trying to keep the area around the building clean, something made even more difficult by the cruising.

"It is a mess," he said, adding that getting in and out of the parking lot can be difficult and painful to the ears as well. "They just throw their garbage all around this building."

And it does not have to be this way, Lyall said.

"After the motorcycles left last weekend (after Rally on the River), it was clean. They respected themselves and our town," Lyall said. "The cruisers come in and don't respect it. That is what really hurts."

Mayor John Elam gave the IPD the green light to assign an extra officer to exclusively patrol the cruise strip on Friday and Saturday nights and enforce the law that has been on the books for nearly a decade.

For Garland, the primary goal is to provide the supervision that keeps the problems to a minimum and makes the weekend traffic more tolerable.

"We need control out there. No question about it," Garland said. "Someone has to monitor the problem."

Monitoring the cruise line is one thing, stopping it is another.

Making an effort

Like many residents, Ironton Police Sgt. Joe Ross knows that the police are kidding themselves to think they can completely do away with cruising. Ross believes it is possible to eliminate the worst parts, something they have been able to do in the past two months.

"It has really gone well. We have had a lot of positive feedback from the community and a lot of positive feedback from the Ironton businesses," Ross said. "We have been able to cut down on the vandalism, trash and the accidents. Also, we have been able to reduce the fighting, drinking and disorderly behavior."

Having that extra officer on the road has been a tremendous help for the others and has probably paid for itself, Ross said. In a four-hour shift, the officers have been averaging more than 10 citations for a variety of charges including traffic violations, criminal trespassing for sitting on business lots, disorderly conduct and more.

Even though it is a misdemeanor, a criminal trespass charge can result in a 30-day jail stay and a $300 fine. A disorderly conduct or an open container citation can cost the recipient $175, as can citations for alcohol consumption in motor vehicles.

Overall, Ross estimated that they have issued nearly $20,000 in citations in the past 8 weeks and that it will continue until cruising is no longer a problem.

As a remnant from past enforcement pushes, a light sits on a pole on Center Street. Once it is lit, it means it is time to clear out for the night.

"We just want the kids in the cruise line to have more respect when they are down here," Ross said. "ŠWe do appreciate the kids and the businesses working together until we can come up with a solution. The more respect the kids show the community and the police, the better it will go."

So, is it working?

Many agree that the increased presence is working and leaving downtown's streets a little cleaner when the work week begins.

"Yes, it has gotten better," Lyall said as he explained that he understands that the youth need something to do and somewhere to go.

Gearhart agrees that the enforcement, while not stopping cruising all together, has taken care of some of the problems.

"I believe what they are doing is definitely helping. They are still there, of course, but there is noticeably less trash on the weekends compared to before they started the enforcement," he said. "I don't know if you will ever do anything to quote-unquote eliminate it but it has made them more respectful where they put their trash.

"I don't have any problem with people driving up and down the street. I guess that is called cruising. But they should have enough respect for the people who live down here and work down here to leave it clean when they are done."

Like the others, Ed Billing, manager of Wallpaper & Moore on Center Street, believes the trash is the worst part. However, Billing said he can relate to the youth who are just looking for something to do.

"I did it myself, 20 years or so ago. But, I remember putting the stuff back in the car and then getting rid of it when I got home," Billing said. "We didn't just throw it in the street or out the window."

Clearing the air

Michael Virgin and Kenny Clark, both from Kentucky, hope that the business owners and residents do not let a few bad apples spoil it for everyone. The frequent visitors emphasize that it is just something to do and that most visitors respect the city.

"We just cruise because we are bored. There is nothing for us to do. We just want to hang out with our friends, but there is nowhere to go, so the only thing we can do is cruise," Virgin said. "I don't know about anybody else, but we don't litter. My car is full of trash that I have to clean out the next day."

Most of the time they are just sitting around, but some people go out of their way to start trouble, Clark said.

"There are lots of cars that just cruise. But there are others that get out and roast their tires and stuff," he said. "We were just standing around (Wednesday) night and some people came up to us and wanted to pick fights."

As far as Clark is concerned, the increased police presence is a positive thing because it allows those who just want to have fun to do it in a safer environment.

"It does not bother me. We are not doing anything wrong," he said. "It is just a few people that get everyone in trouble."