FLORIDA CHARGERS

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We ride along with the Florida Highway Patrol to keep the peace on the turnpike (hey pal, you know how fast you were going?)

Story & photos by Cliff Gromer


Florida Highway Patrol’s chargin’ Charger takes off after a lawbreaker. Or maybe it’s off to a pizza break.
 

The gold Nissan Quest is not pulling over. Trooper Mike Transue, lights flashing, is 20 feet off its rear bumper serving up the full course in his siren’s menu—wails, whoops, beeps, wheezes, buzzes—just about everything short of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes “Maybe try a little Sinatra,” I suggest, pointing to the visor‑mount wallet loaded with CDs. Transue swings the plainly‑marked Charger left into the center lane and pulls abreast of the minivan which is doing the speed limit. He rolls down the passenger window, and hand‑signals the driver, a guy in his 60s, to pull over. He does, and Mike eases behind him on the right shoulder.

This guy has violated the “Move Over” law that’s in effect in all but a handful of states. It requires you to move over a lane, or at least slow down when passing a police car or emergency vehicle parked off the right shoulder. Not too many motorists, it seems, are aware of the law. Turns out the driver, with a car packed with family and vacation gear, is a tourist from Brazil, and Transue lets him off with a written warning. The trooper figures that in Brazil, if the guy didn’t pull over, the cops would have used a machine gun instead of hand signals to get his attention.


Troopers Mike Transue (right) and Sherwin Campbell with their marked and unmarked Chargers. The company cars are driven back and forth from home and protect and serve on 8-16-hour duty tours.
 

A lean six‑footer, Transue, an ex‑Marine, is not the kind of guy you’d want to tussle with, as two scofflaws foolish enough to go toe‑to‑toe with him recently found out. And at 45, Transue is in prime shape considering he’s spent the last 18 of his 20 years with FHP driving up and down the Florida Turnpike (technically called “Florida’s Turnpike”). Today he’s working a short shift. It’s actually his day off, and he came in just for our ride‑along in one of five marked ’08 Hemi Chargers that ply the pike. There are also five unmarked Chargers. The rest of the cars are Ford Crown Victorias. Like all the FHP cars in Troop K, Transue’s cruiser is assigned just to him. He drives it back and forth to work, and spends anywhere from 8 to 16 hours a day up and down the turnpike. The troopers deal with every type of traffic infraction or crime on the turnpike, except murder and rape.

Business is slow. It’s after the morning rush where drivers late for work are easy prey for Transue’s Stalker radar or laser‑‑which can be shot out the side window, whereas radar is only front or rear. At least the offender can flash his speeding ticket to his boss as an excuse for being late. We’re southbound in the hammer lane at 85, shooting radar at oncoming traffic. The turnpike speed limit is 70; 60 in construction zones. This section of turnpike has an Armco divider—good at preventing head‑ons, but bad if the next U‑turn is up the road a piece. Like now, as the Stalker display flashes a “90” for a northbound Lexus. It would be a long chase by the time we’d hit the U‑turn, and company policy makes public safety a priority, which keeps a lid on high‑speed pursuits‑‑in effect, giving some high‑rollers a free pass. Transue keeps the radar going, to encourage those with radar detectors to slow down, at least temporarily.

Campbell
“tunes up” before his performance on the turnpike. Three tuning forks are used to calibrate the Stalker radar—or tune his piano. Driving up and down the same road day in and day out would put us to sleep, but Campbell is
alert 100% of the time.

Faced with an apparent shortage of moving violators, Transue pulls off onto the shoulder and focuses on his rearview for toll violators. Nope, everyone is dropping in their hard‑earned dimes, nickels and quarters the way they’re supposed to. His ticket book still has its new‑book smell. Toll booth watching gets old after 10 minutes, so we’re heading south again. “Don’t feel bad.” Transue says. “I had the guys from ‘Cops’ (TV show) ride along, and nothing happened—no chases, no fights, no shootouts, no flat tires. A real dud. They weren’t happy.”

I’m not too happy either. My readers want to read about chases; but they’ll take fisticuffs, shootouts or at least a flat tire. A big garbage truck is pulled over to the side with one flat in its centipede‑like line of wheels. But he’s getting written up by a trooper in a Crown Vic. Shucks.


Mike Transue hauls in a Trailblazer for an obstructed license plate. Hey, the law’s the law!

There aren’t many accidents on the pike, either. It’s a well‑designed road, and not too many people are doing stupid things. There are exceptions. Like the woman who braked and swerved her SUV to avoid hitting a dog that was already dead near the right shoulder. She rolled and crashed and ended up brain dead. Her passenger ended up all dead.

    “It goes against your grain,” Transue says, “but if there’s a dog in the road, you’re better off just hitting it, rather than jeopardizing your safety and that of those around you.”

Makes sense, but the A.S.P.C.A. might have a problem with that.

We turn around and head North. Transue spots a silver Trailblazer with a license plate frame that obscures the bottom of the Florida tag that indicates the county. The driver responds to the lights and pulls over and gets a warning. “That offense would have cost him $101. A move‑over violation is $121, but evading a toll is $191. So you see where the priorities are. If I worked on commission, people would be in real trouble.”

Right now, no one is in trouble, and Transue is heading back to HQ in the Turkey Lake Rest Area. Maybe tomorrow will be better.

Trooper Sherwin Campell is doing some housecleaning in his unmarked ’08 Charger to make some room for me up front. I’ll be riding along on his full shift from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Then he’ll be riding without my invaluable assistance from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.—a double shift. Campbell really likes the Charger. It’s a lot more aggressive looking than the Crown Vics that make up the majority of the FHP fleet. The Ford looks too friendly, like something out of a “Shrek” movie. And there’s no contest when it comes to performance. The Fords, built on an aging platform, are slower, poorer handlers and don’t brake as hard. Acceleration and top end are the Dodge’s key points. The quicker you can close on your prey, the less time you spend in pursuit. High speed pursuits aren’t the norm for the FHP, except in cases of a major felony such as carjacking. If the perpetrator can’t be run down in a reasonable distance, company policy calls for breaking off the chase.


Interior of Campbells
Charger is loaded with all kinds of cop gear. The HP laptop and console-mounted printer take the hassle out of issuing summonses.
 

The Chargers have proven to be hammer‑like reliable. On the flip side, the Dodge does give up some interior room, so the 12‑gauge pump shotgun has to ride in the trunk instead of a gun rack behind the driver—a 3‑4‑second penalty.

  “We’re going top head south toward Osceola County and look for some high rollers—triple digit speeders. OK?”

  “Fine with me.”

Seems there are more lawbreakers toward the southern end of the turnpike. Campbell and Transue have different philosophies for chasing down speeders. Transue flogs his marked car in the hammer lane, lights and siren blazing. He counts on drivers pulling over to let him by. When one doesn’t, Transue pulls him over and tickets him for failure to yield. ‘Course the speeder gets a pass. Campbell will do whatever to nab the culprit, threading the needle and passing on the right shoulder, if necessary. It’s a lot more challenging, as a driver you’re coming up on at over a buck twenty can be unpredictable, often banging the brakes because he doesn’t know hat else to do—pretty exciting when you’re a few feet off his bumper.

“I got a feeling,” says Campell, we’re gonna get a guy doing 115. And my feelings are almost never wrong.” He gets the same feeling before he makes an arrest.


Flashing a badge didn’t get this 100 MPH Mercedes driver out of a ticket. He’ll probably be looking for Campbell
in his jurisdiction.

Radar flashes 100 MPH for a white Mercedes E320 barreling northbound. A U‑turn slot in the divider, not too far ahead makes the chase doable. Campbell mashes the pedal and hits the lights and siren. The Charger accelerates from 90 MPH with ease, then it’s on the brakes as Campbell’s big right foot slams on the binders right just before the U‑slot. Then the loud pedal gets mashed deep into the carpeting. I’m flung from up against the seat belt to firmly into the seatback, as the Hemi obliges willingly—very willingly, and our speed on the radar readout flashes up in a jumble of LED segments.

Traffic is fairly light, and, at 140 MPH, we get all three points of the Mercedes star clearly in our sights. The driver pulls over with no drama. Campbell reaches over for his Smokey trooper hat, takes his time adjusting it to the proper low angle, gets out and walks up to the Merc on the driver’s side—something he rarely does, as the passenger side is much safer from drunks or drivers not paying attention. They can come along in the right lane and clip you good. Another move Campbell avoids is walking between his car and the one he’s pulled over. This, in case his car is creamed from behind, he doesn’t end up as the meat in a car sandwich.

The guy, who has his whole family packed into the small krautkar, flashes a badge. Professional courtesy—you let me ride, I let you ride. Campbell isn’t in a particularly courteous mood—professional or otherwise. He comes back to the Charger and computer‑checks the guy’s license. He has a clean record. No matter. The HP Rugged Notebook computer digests the driver’s info, Campbell clicks away on the keyboard, slips a couple of clean sheets of paper into the small HP printer, and out pops the summons, neat as you please. 100 MPH is 30 above the limit, which means an automatic court appearance. Campbell prints out the ticket for 90. No matter, it

Sure ruins Mr. badge‑flasher’s day. Back in the Charger, Campbell explains that because the guy is the law, that doesn’t put him above the law. I’m impressed.


 This visitor from the Netherlands
found himself in Dutch (get it?) when he got nailed for 98 in a 70. He had to dig his paperwork out of his luggage. After paying the fine, he’ll get to see Disneyland
from outside the gate.

Southbound, still looking for that 115 mile‑an‑hourer. Campbell pulls off on the shoulder. It’s his sweet spot to net violators. Today, it’s not so sweet.

   “C’mon, show me the money,” he mutters, a little concerned that maybe his feeling won’t pan out and he’ll look bad to the press.

Nothing.

Campbell’s swinging for the fences, ignoring the singles of frame‑obscured  license plates and other small‑fry violations. He pulls onto the tarmac and flicks over to the hammer lane at 85. Some bozo swings in behind him, not recognizing the stealthy gray Charger as a police car, even though the plate plainly states FHP.

“People just don’t see it,” says Campell, as he inches up his speed. “I’m gonna pace clock him.”

The idea is to see if the follower will keep pace with the Charger’s ever‑climbing speeds, until Campbell springs the trap, hits the rear radar, and ends the game. The bozo doesn’t bite and falls back as we creep away from him. Oh, well.

Traffic thins and the miles drone by. Campbell says he likes the freedom the job gives him, the wide limits of operating within his own discretion. Pulling guys over seems routine to me, but hey, you never know who’se in the car—a Mad Dog Coll or a Mr. Rogers. Guess that breaks up the monotony. Campbell stays alert, his eyes constantly scanning traffic, looking for that expired tag, or something that doesn’t seem quite right. Some troopers can just grow roots on the shoulder and wait for scofflaws to come to them. Not Campbell, he’s gotta be doing something, like he’s gotta be working.


We stopped for a quick chat with Elvis–alive and well at this out-of-the-way hotel. Who’d ever think of looking for him here? He declined our request for photos. He’s also lost considerable weight.

Bang! A Chevy Equinox northbound lights up the Stalker display at 98. The turnaround is fairly close, and the trooper’s big feet dance from all gas to all brakes as we hit the U‑turn, the stability control keeping things on an even keel as we max out tread adhesion. The Chev has opened up a good lead, but not good enough. Traffic is heavier northbound, and Campbell is darting through the holes like a D‑day blitz with everything short of 12‑inch guns blazing. We’re in the clear, and accelerating. Our Charger is starting to move around, a bit floaty. It’s more susceptible to the wind at this speed. The clock shows 146.

Our prey is now in sight, and our shock and awe display catches the minivan driver’s attention.  Duly impressed, he submits and pulls over. The smell of Charger brakes is as strong as cooking grease in a cheap take‑out Chinese restaurant. But Campbell doesn’t notice. Says he must be used to it. No big deal, he never had noticeable brake fade in the 13,800 miles he’s flogged the Dodge. When the cop cars are traded in at 100,000 miles, cop service is figured at 1.5x actual mileage. So the wear and tear is equivalent to 150K.

The driver is from the Netherlands, and he has an international license. Too bad, 28 over the limit is a $266 fine, and that many fewer rides at Disney World.


The Dodge Ram was our high roller for the day—105 MPH. The woman driver explained she thought she was doing 80. Campbell asked her if she was joking.
 

Half the fun on the job is the entertainment—the excuses folks cook up for their motoring malfeasance. Like the lady who was nabbed for speeding and said she had to go to the bathroom:

   “Why didn’t you go at the rest area you just passed?”

    “I want to use my bathroom at home.”

    “Where do you live?”

     “Tennessee.”

Southbound again when radar picks up the high roller of the day—a red Ram 1500 SLT pickup blistering northbound at 105. The U‑slot is so far out that by the time we hit it, the truck could be in another county.

   “Should we go for it?” Campbell asks.

 I figure this is for my benefit, like maybe he feels he owes me, what with his “115” being a no‑show so far. Probably, the smart thing to do would be to just alert troopers on the northbound side.

   “Hey, you’re the boss,” I say, carefully avoiding the word “man.”

We go! Campbell cranks through the U, the stability control keeping a lid on anything resembling a Dukes slide. Burying the accelerator, the trooper activates his “festival of lights and sounds.”  The Hemi gives us everything it’s got, all 368 ponies straining in harness. The Charger keeps pulling and the speed display keeps climbing, settling finally at 148. “That’s it?” I ask. That’s it—one hundred forty-eight miles per hour. We’ve got a hike ahead of us to haul down a triple digit truck, maybe also a Hemi, with a big head start.

Right now we’re coming up on a plug of traffic. Fast. Very fast. The Pontiac in the left lane is caught by surprise at our sudden filling of his rearview mirror and for an instant doesn’t know what to do. He finally puts on his right signal and starts moving over. But Campbell has beat him to the center lane and is moving up when the Poncho stops in a mid‑lane shift, not sure what to do except get on his brakes. Campbell cranks it left, the Charger keeping its composure, but the Brembos are crying. It’s close. Campbell likens these maneuvers to a game of chess—you gotta out‑think Mr. Average Driver or we’re fodder for the wrecker. Or the undertaker.

U-turns are easy (and fun) on non-divider sections of the turnpike. Transue had to return and replace the divots. Fore!

We’re through the plug. Still no sign of the red Ram. More traffic. We’re cooking and Campbell swings right to the shoulder to pass a semi in the right lane. We’re at about number 9 of his 18 wheels, when the trucker, in sort of a delayed reaction, starts to move to the shoulder. It’s the first time I see Campbell tense up. He’s limited his options. The truck jerks back into the right lane, and Campbell is on it. We’re into a long right hand sweeper.

    “If we don’t see him when we come out of this curve, I’m gonna break it off.”

We come out on the straightaway and there it is, way in the distance. There’s some traffic to deal with, but Campbell cuts the lights and siren, and threads through the cars at high speed. Without broadcasting his approach, the cars don’t even notice him until he’s blasted past them. One forty eight and we’re closing in. It’s been eight exciting miles. Campbell slows up and tails the Ram at 95. The truck doesn’t slow up until it passes two marked Crown Vics parked way off the right shoulder. But now it’s surprise time, as the mild‑mannered‑appearing Charger springs into cop mode. Ta‑da!

The woman driver is not happy with Campbell’s written invitation to a court appearance, and he leaves her cursing and muttering under her breath.

   “Were you comfortable with those speeds?” he asks me.

   “No problem, I was trying to keep from dozing off.”

I figure at 148, the last thing Campbell needs is some idiot journalist clawing at the headliner, punching his foot through the floor or into the glovebox, tearing off the door panels and ripping the console‑mounted computer from its moorings.

  “Uh, oh, that chase used up all our gas.”

We take an “Official Use Only” detour off the turnpike onto a local road. We pass the Heartbreak Hotel, where Elvis‑‑alive and well‑‑is currently ensconced.  He declines photos and an interview for this article. He says he’s committed to Mopar Collectors Guide.

We fill up and are back on the job. The hours tick by, nothing’s happening. Campbell is trolling his usual fishing grounds, but no bites. He apologizes for the lack of action.   

   “Damn law‑abiding citizens,” I mutter.


Our last catch for the night. Campbell
has his tint meter in his left hand, the driver’s license in his right, and his flashlight under his arm. Good thing he didn’t have to draw.

The sun starts to set. Whatever happened to Mr. 115? Florida is in a hard freeze. Maybe it’s too cold for him to come out. Maybe he overslept. Whatever. All we know is that he’s not on the Florida Turnpike. We’re parked on the shoulder facing oncoming traffic. It’s dark now, and the approaching headlights whiz past like tracer shells. Periodicaly, Campbell triggers his radar.

   “What’s the speed of the next one?” he asks to break the monotony.

   “78.”

Campbell fires the Stalker. The display flashes “78.” We both crack up.

Some guy in a Caddy makes an illegal U‑turn through the slot in the divider. He’s an easy catch. Turns out he’s lost and gets off with a warning.

     “I’m a nice guy,” Campbell says.

 I haven’t seen him lose his good nature all day. He probably is a nice guy.

We swing around to the southbound side and park on the shoulder. To passing traffic we look like a disabled vehicle.

 Nothing.

  “Send me something..” I complain to the trooper gods, “a UFO…anything. I’ll even take a 91.”

Three minutes later, a Honda Odyssey flashes the radar display—91 MPH. Campbell smiles. I smile. Life is good. The Charger comes off idle to full throttle. A short chase and we reel him in. He gets a ticket and most likely stiff surcharges from his insurance company.

The number of troopers thin out at night. One of the Crown Vics is carting a bad guy off to the slammer. That makes Campbell’s closest backup more than 20 miles away.

    “Can you shoot?” he asks.

I don’t know if he’s serious or joking.

We’re doing 86 MPH in the left lane and we’re passed on the right by a white Mercedes S550. Not smart. The Merc has expired tags and tinted windows. Campbell pulls it over.

   “I’m going to check if the tinted windows are too dark.”

  “What do you use—a tint meter?” I joke.

Campbell pulls a tint meter out from behind the seat.

     “Yes.”

The windows pass, but the 22-year-old girl behind the wheel gets the paperwork spit out by the HP printer for speeding. It’s our last act of upholding the law for the night. Another excursion on the “Official Use Only” detour, this time to a Subway, where Campbell obviously is a regular. A quick bite, and the trooper motors me back to the Turkey Lake Rest area and my rental slug. I set course to my motel, while Campbell heads out for his second shift on the pike.

And what about Mr. 115?  Hey, there’s always tomorrow.

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