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Police have to learn new 2014 traffic laws, too

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014 9:44 a.m. CDT

Drivers face the same problem every January: learning the new traffic laws that take effect on the first of the year. But what is it like for the police officers who have to enforce them?

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said, laughing, that his officers learn about the new laws from the media, just like everyone else.

There are more official channels, including the state’s attorney’s office, the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, the Illinois Sheriff’s Association and the Illinois State Police.

“Every time the law changes, we got notification and then we try to figure out if we do business differently,” Sycamore Police Chief Don Thomas said. “We then try to get the word out to everyone.”

Roll call, emails and departmental training are all used to inform officers of new laws, he said.

“As we become aware of them, the lieutenants and the sergeants will get the information and spread them out to those who need to know them,” Scott said. “They usually pick them up rather quickly.”

Chad McNett, community relations officer at the DeKalb Police Department, said it’s not too difficult to learn new laws, “because we don’t get a slew of them at any one time.” In the case of laws that will be more difficult to enforce, such as the medical marijuana law, officers may attend special training classes put on by the state.

“Sometimes a law gets passed and it’s a little confusing to everyone, including the legislators who pass it,” Thomas said. Sycamore has already had one department meeting about new laws, and officers will meet again before the month is out, he said.

When new laws seem contradictory, police rely on the state’s attorney’s office to define what is and is not enforceable, Scott said.

Eventually, the state will revise the published Illinois Vehicle Code to include new laws. Until then, some officers carry “cheat sheets” to remember the details of the violation, including probable cause, McNett said.

“You have to know what the meat of the new violation is,” he said. “No police officer wants to get into something without knowing. You don’t like to look foolish. Once they learn the new laws, they’re good.”

Heavily-publicized laws are easier for both the public and the officers to remember; more obscure ones take a little more time.

“Usually by the time the law takes effect, there’s been a lot of talk about it,” McNett said.

Probably the most publicized new law is the one prohibiting the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Thomas is quick to point out that doesn’t mean drivers can talk while they’re sitting behind the wheel at a stop sign or red light.

“You have to be out of the traffic lane,” he said.

Police departments try to inform the public of the new laws through social media and other channels. Although some departments will issue warnings for the first couple of weeks, McNett warns that no one should just assume that will happen.

“It depends on the law,” he said. “Some laws have a greater level of safety associated with them. Each officer can use his own discretion.”

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