By Tim O’Meilia
The first driving-under-the-influence arrest South Palm Beach Police Officer Jason LaForte ever made was almost his last.
The suspect was a Palm Beach resident — but let’s not stereotype here — weaving through the town’s five-eighths of a mile of two-lane A1A. After the driver failed the roadside sobriety test and was handcuffed “he went ballistic,” LaForte explained.
“After he was in the patrol car, he tried to kick out the window. He was belligerent all the way to (the Palm Beach County) jail,” he said.
The driver kicked at the bars in the holding cell and told deputies he was having a heart attack. Paramedics were called to check him out. While his heart was fine, he complained that his foot was injured kicking the bars. He wanted more medical treatment.
“After that, I didn’t know if I ever wanted to do that again,” LaForte said with a smile, years after that incident. “It was one of those long nights and it was my first DUI.”
LaForte persevered. He’s had 11-plus years of nights on patrol, but few as troublesome as that one. Last year, he made four DUI arrests (with a 100 percent conviction rate) and wrote 125 traffic citations on his 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
For that, he was recognized with one of the Palm Beach County Safety Council’s Distinguished Service Awards for Enforcement. He was one of 30 people honored during the council’s 26th annual traffic safety award luncheon at the Airport Hilton last month. Honorees came in categories ranging from crossing guards to police officers to ordinary citizens heroes to the Dori Slosberg Foundation that sponsors several “In the Click” seat belt compliance contests for students across the state.
“We’re not just out to give awards to officers who write a lot of tickets. We want people who engage the public and make a lot of effort outside just ticket-writing,” said Donna Bryant, marketing director for the Safety Council.
South Palm Beach isn’t known as a speed-trap, ticketing-writing hot spot. LaForte issues plenty of warnings and makes an attempt to hear out the driver.
“I don’t go out looking for stats,” said LaForte, 39. “But I am looking for people drinking and driving. They need to be stopped so they don’t kill someone.” Never has a DUI suspect whom LaForte has detained passed the breathalyzer at the jail.
And your child better be in a child restraint, said LaForte, who has daughters 7 and 8 years old. “There’s no excuse for that one.” Ring up a $166 ticket.
He hears parents complain that little Johnny doesn’t like the restraints. They make him cry. “I say, ‘Who’s the parent, you or him?’ They don’t seem to realize what can happen if they’re not restrained.”
Most of LaForte’s traffic stops earn a $139 ticket for going up to 10 miles over the 35 mph speed limit in town. More than 10 miles over the limit earns a $206 ticket. Unbuckled seat belt equals $116.
“It’s a straight run through town. No traffic lights. A lot of people think the speed limit’s 45,” he said. Most drivers are just passing through. “You’d be surprised how many people prefer A1A rather than I-95,” LaForte said.
Although born on Staten Island, N.Y., LaForte grew up west of Lake Worth and graduated from Santaluces High School. He earned an associate degree at then-Palm Beach Junior College and is a few credits short of his degree in criminal justice from Florida Atlantic University.
He worked briefly at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office but enjoys the small-town atmosphere of the community of mostly retirees. The town has an eight-man force with five of them on road patrol like LaForte.
The town is small enough that LaForte knows many residents by name and they know him. Folks on their evening walk stop at his patrol car to chat. “They tell us we’re doing a good job and we appreciate that. It’s nice to have that relationship,” he said.
The police reciprocate.
“We always have a police officer out on the road,” LaForte said. “You’re always going to see the police cars.”
Residents give the police plenty of extra eyes. Beachgoers are protective of turtle eggs laid on the beach and don’t hesitate to call the police. Night strollers too close to condos can expect a patrol car to stop by.
The police even get thanks from unlikely places.
A man whom LaForte had arrested on a DUI charge stopped by the Police Department during his shift. “He thanked me for being professional and thanked me for the arrest. It made him realize he had a problem and was getting help for it,” he said.
“I was shocked. I never would have thought that would happen in a million years,” LaForte said.
It must be those small-town cops.