Thursday, April 3, 2008

Be kind, don't litter, 'county bum' warns

County enforcement agents target wastefulness
By Rachel E. Leonard
Published: Thursday, April 3, 2008

This man is no ordinary bum - he's an undercover police officer looking to catch litterbugs who throw trash from their vehicles.
This panhandler isn't keeping an eye out for your money. Just your trash.

Spartanburg County environmental enforcement officers call him the "county bum," but he's one of their own: an undercover officer who poses as a homeless man to catch litterbugs in the act. Clutching a sign reading "Be Kind," he frequents intersections throughout the county to help nab motorists who toss trash and cigarette butts out car windows or dump ashtrays on the roadside.

The "bum" calls in the offender's license number over a police radio, and a nearby officer in an unmarked vehicle - a "chase car" - catches up and issues a warning or ticket. Don Arnold, county environmental enforcement director, said officers are thinking outside the box when it comes to litter enforcement.

"We think that it's been good, and I think the awareness of it, as a preventive measure, may help," Arnold said. "When the word gets around, you have to be careful, because the people sitting out there may be 'the man' who's sitting out there, waiting for you to violate the law."

Cigarette butts, which take anywhere from two to 20 years to decompose and are not biodegradable, can also wash into streams and can spark brush fires, he said.

The last sting took place Friday during a three-day environmental enforcement campaign. The "bum" officer, whose name is being withheld because he works undercover, said some people try to give him money, but he motions them away and tells them, "No thank you, just be kind."

"You get all kinds of different looks, from just stares ... a lot of them just read the sign," he said. "You can tell some of them, from the expression on their face, they feel sorry for you."

The undercover campaign began last fall, and the Friday operation resulted in no citations. The officer said one person threw a cigarette from a window, but he couldn't verify which car the litter came from. Environmental enforcement Sgt. Jamie Nelson said local TV publicity about the sting could have put motorists on the lookout, but officers will be hitting the streets again in the future.

"It was a good day," Nelson said. "No one threw anything out while we were there, which is another aspect of the job."

Officers did ticket motorists on local interstates for unsecured loads after seeing trash fly off their trucks. During the three-day campaign, the officers issued 58 tickets, 36 of which were for litter violations.

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