Hyattsville officer receives award for traffic safety enforcement
By Melena DiNenna
After just four years of being a police officer, Officer Kelly Hernandez, of the Hyattsville City Police Department (HCPD), has made local history and won multiple awards for her work on improving traffic safety in the city.
After graduating from Fairmont State University and joining the HCPD, in 2017, the Prince George’s County native quickly recognized traffic safety as a concern.
“Early in my career, I noticed that there was a huge issue with drunk drivers in the City of Hyattsville,” she said. “And it’s also a huge issue everywhere.”
From 2015 to 2019, the county had 453 fatal vehicle crashes in total, according to the Maryland Highway Safety Office. And in 2019, alcohol-related traffic fatalities accounted for just over 28% of all traffic fatalities in the county, which is consistent with the national average, according to a 2020 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments report.
The issue of impaired driving is also personal for Hernandez, who said that alcoholism was a big problem in the Langley Park community where she grew up.
“I actually lost a classmate in high school to a drunk driver,” she explained. “[And] a lot of people I grew up with became alcoholics. So, I wanted to get these people off the streets … and work towards zero deaths.”
Zero Deaths Maryland refers to a state law enacted in 2019, which set a goal of reducing vehicle-related deaths or serious injuries on state roadways to zero by 2030.
For Hernandez, this goal means jumping at every opportunity to learn and teach about impaired driving laws and enforcement.
“In 2020, in a pandemic, she trained nine different officers and spent a ton of time with each one, on top of doing all her regular duties and enforcement,” said HCPD Acting Lt. Zach Nemser. “And she still had  DUI lockups, which is off the charts.”
The department made 45 DUI arrests total in 2020, according to the department’s 2020 annual report.
This July, the Maryland Highway Safety Office awarded Hernandez with the DUI Law Enforcement Award for 2020, according to an HCPD press release. The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association also awarded her with this year’s Traffic Safety Award.
Hernandez is a certified field training officer and Standardized Field Sobriety Test instructor, according to the press release. She said she helps train officers not only in HCPD, but occasionally in other parts of the state, as well.
“I love teaching,” Hernandez said. “In school, I used to tutor people all the time, so I just keep it going with my job … I want other people to go out there and do what I’m doing, because that’s the only way we’re going to get down to zero deaths.”
Her latest achievement was graduating, on Aug. 27, from the DUI Institute held at the University of Maryland, where a select number of officers in the state attend six days of training and education, she said. At the institute, attending officers learned tools to “get more convictions.”
“We can pull over the drunk driver and arrest them,” Herndandez said, “but at the end of the day, we … want them to learn from it.”
In May, Hernandez also became HCPD’s first certified drug recognition expert (DRE), according to the press release. Fewer than one-third of law enforcement agencies in Maryland have officers who are DRE-certified.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” Hernandez explained. “Whenever you hear ‘drug recognition expert,’ everyone knows it’s one of the hardest training an officer could complete, and I wanted it.”
The course teaches officers how to identify drivers under the influence of drugs other than alcohol, which Hernandez said is important since recreational marijuana is decriminalized in Maryland.
A breathalyzer detects alcohol, but the test cannot detect marijuana or other drugs, said Nemser, so having Hernandez on hand to determine what substance an impaired driver is using “is a huge bonus.”
“Otherwise, we have to look out to other agencies, hope that someone is available and maybe miss out on getting a dangerous person off the street,” he said.
As drunk driving continues to be a problem both locally and nationally, Nemser said Hernandez shows the ambition to take it on.
“We can train officers in many disciplines. What we cannot train is effort and drive. That is something that you either have or you don’t. And Officer Hernandez has it,” he said. “She’s a rockstar.”