When Department of Public Safety Officer Tiffany Harold drives Highway 87 down from the Rim, she is like most drivers, captured by the natural beauty that unfolds at each turn of the journey. But Harold also sees every cross, every accident hot spot and the place she came upon her first fatal.
Harold can recall everything about that first fatal call out. It was April 6, 2005. She had just returned home from an eight-hour shift, much like the one she had several weeks ago, when the Roundup rode along with her for several hours, listening to her tales as an 8.5 years Department of Public Safety officer as she made routine stops.
She had only been home an hour that night, and on the job with DPS for less than a year, when she got a call for a rollover on Highway 87.
When she arrived, Harold was shocked to find her friend’s husband in the wreck. She later knocked on her friend’s door and delivered the news of his death.
“The first one was my toughest,” she said. “But after that first one, I knew I could do any that came after.”
As she drove past the spot of the accident in the darkness on a quiet Saturday, only a small red light illuminated the inside of Harold’s squad car. She pointed out where the family had put up a cross. Another cross nearby marked the spot where someone else had died.
There are places like that all around Rim Country, she said. Officers expect the worst when they hear the tone-out and the road section — like milepost 273 on 87, milepost 246 at Corvair Curve south of town and milepost 230 near Deer Creek.
Recent roadway improvements near milepost 230 have reduced the onslaught of motorcycle accidents there, but other areas have taken its place.
One such area is a sharp turn coming off the Rim into Strawberry, where cyclists typically take a tumble. Instead of looking where they are going, they look out at the view of Pine-Strawberry, Harold said. ADOT doesn’t have a complete tally of accidents there, but Roundup archives include a grim toll.
Most accidents stem from driver inattention or error.
“The best thing you can do is pay attention to your driving,” she said, steering her squad car with the concentration of a NASCAR driver. “It is the only thing that is going to save you — awareness is everything.”
Harold delivered that message repeatedly during the ride-along.
She had underscored the point just minutes earlier when at least two dozen elk wandered onto the highway near the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park turnoff.
Cloaked in darkness, the squad car nearly plowed into the herd, browsing on both sides of the roadway. Harold swung around, flashed her lights and hit the horn, scattering the elk to the west.
With the elk safely off the highway and over the cattle fence, Harold said with any luck we had prevented at least one accident.
With miles of road left to patrol, it felt like one small victory against a sleepy army of inattentive drivers.
But no officer’s diligence or long patrols through the night can stop every speeding driver, force every teen to put down that phone or shake that distracted driver awake.
As one of six DPS staffers in a vast area, usually working alone, Harold can’t even reach every section of highway in a shift.
Her patrol area stretches as far north as Clints Well, south to Mt. Ord, east to the Woods Canyon turnoff and west to the turnoff to Camp Verde. On Highway 87 alone, the coverage area stretches 80 miles.
So she concentrates on staying visible in the high-traffic areas.
During the Roundup’s ride-along, she sat off the southbound lanes on the hill leading into Rye.
After only a few minutes of waiting, dozens of speeders rushed past, but Harold didn’t make her first stop until a black Volkswagen zipped by, well over the limit.
“We are sitting in a 55 area and in these curves we have lots of wrecks,” she said. “We get speeds anywhere from 40 to 80 through here.”
While she can pull someone over for going one mile above the speed limit, it isn’t efficient. Instead, she picks and chooses who to stop based on a myriad of indicators, but mostly relies on her experience and intuition. If they slow down quickly, aware that they are speeding, she might let them pass. But not if their taillights are out too.
“If there are additional things, it is more efficient for me to stop somebody who has got two or three or four things wrong,” she said. “A real busted up windshield and a brake light that doesn’t work that was going 70 through here is more efficient for me to stop than somebody that is just doing 71 and immediately slows down when they see me.”
And to avoid any suspicion of profiling, Harold said she decides before she walks up to the driver’s window if she is going to give them a ticket. It doesn’t matter if the driver is nice or rude, if they are going to get a ticket, they are going to get a ticket.
This was evident during the handful of stops Harold made with the Roundup on board.
She gave one middle-aged man a warning, but wrote a ticket for the next car — a small rental vehicle driven by an older woman.
After explaining that she would be given a ticket for speeding just south of Rye, the older woman thanked Harold for the ticket.
As strange as it sounds, that is common — to be thanked, she said.
While Harold has dealt with a few irate drivers, she has never gotten in a physical altercation or had to fire her gun.
Still, she never knows what the next driver is thinking.
Whenever she pulls a vehicle over, she always makes sure to touch the taillight.
“That puts my fingerprints on the car if anything goes weird,” she said. “Some officers do it and some don’t, but it connects me to that car.”
As the only woman officer on highway patrol in the area, Harold said she typically gets nicer treatment from drivers than her male counterparts.
And even when a situation escalates, she has always talked her way out of a fight with “verbal judo,” she says.
From schoolteacher to ticket master
Law enforcement wasn’t Harold’s first career, but always her dream.
She was first introduced to the field at Payson High School through the American Legion Law Enforcement Career Academy, at the time based-out of Tucson.
She spent a couple of weeks during two summers in Tucson in ALLECAs mini-police academy with other students learning the ropes of law enforcement.
When she went to college, she fell away from the field, becoming a middle school math teacher.
Eventually though, “I figured out when I got old enough that I was trying to make everyone else happy and that this is what I wanted to do and I finally just did it.”
There are no other police officers in her family and her husband is a teacher.
She settled on working with highway patrol because it is where she felt she could make the biggest impact.
While coming upon a fatal wreck is always difficult, especially if she must deliver the news to the family, Harold said she works every day to prevent such tragedies.
Every speeding ticket, every stop, gives her a chance to make a difference — to save one more life.
“The thing that gets me about people is they drive too fast,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they are going, they drive too fast. I’ll stop someone for doing 85, they have their kids and their fishing poles and I’ll ask them, ‘Do you have to be somewhere?’”
Normally, the answer is “no,” they are heading to a cabin for the weekend.
“I have literally told hundreds of people to slow down and enjoy it, gosh you are on vacation so what is the hurry?”
A normal shift
While most jobs have a natural beginning and end, Harold’s job is never truly over.
She gets called out from home frequently. The DPS Payson office is down four officers, so she has to help cover wrecks frequently, especially during storms.
And with 150 miles of highway to cover, she is lucky if she sees a quarter of that in one shift.
“A normal shift does not really exist,” she said. “Our job is to be out here and try to make the roads safer. That is our ultimate goal, but as far as a normal day we try to get around to some of our area.”
She usually stations herself outside of Payson, making traffic stops until a call comes in. She makes sure not to stray too far.
“It never fails, Murphy’s Law, that if we go north to check on things something way out on 260 will happen.”
While she has no ticket quota to meet, she says the department has to have some way to evaluate the performance of the officers.
“There is a suggested (number of tickets) that they like to see,” she said.
When the office was fully staffed at nine officers, they looked at that a lot harder. Now that we are half staffed, “they are not quite as harsh with it.”
Having officers on the streets has shown to make a difference.
“When we are more visible, speeds slow down,” she said. “And we have no problem finding people speeding.”
While she couldn’t say how the area compares to the state, in the four sectors in District 11, Payson has “more collisions than the other three.”
By far, most accidents occur because of inattentive drivers who are talking on the phone, texting, drowsy, smoking or distracted by children.
“There is not one thing we see specifically,” she said, “just distractions.”
With motorcyclists, inattention causes the most accidents — not other vehicles.
“If you have ever driven a motorcycle when you go into a curve, it doesn’t work like a car does — the centrifugal force is different,” she said. “It is going to go where you are looking, so if you are looking off at the cool scenery and you got a guardrail over there, you are in the guardrail that quick,” she said, snapping her fingers.
As we drove back into town, Harold said the best driving tip she can offer, and one she tells her three children, is simple: Pay attention.