What do police officer think about traffic ticket quotas? Here’s one officer’s thoughts:
In my agency, those of us in patrol had to keep a “Daily.” This would be a formal document that showed the times, addresses where we went, written in code, of what we had done.
On the back were boxes for how many traffic citations, criminal citations, parking citations and felony and misdemeanor arrests we had made on that day.
I frequently commented that the form didn’t represent how many people we stopped from committing suicide. Or how many domestic disputes we settled or how many missing children we found. So that “daily” never really adequately represented what my day really involved and often, by the numbers, could look as though I did nothing at all.
My dad was a city police officers in the 1950s and 1960s.
We were talking about cities that use the police force as a taxing agency last week. I gathered that my dad’s captain thought he was a little lax in issuing citations.
“My captain’d say, ‘why aren’t you writing more tickets, Hennessy?’” Dad told me. “And I’d say, ‘I didn’t see anybody do anything wrong.’”
One time his sergeant rode with him. The sergeant wanted to show him how to spot a moving violation. “Follow anybody for 5 minutes, and they’ll commit a violation,” the sergeant told him.
The sergeant spotted a car with a burned-out headlight. “Get him,” he told my dad.
“He’s got his family in the car, Sergeant.”
“I don’t care, Hennessy. It’s a violation. Pull him over.”
So my dad did.
“I’m sorry to do this to you with your family in the car, but my sergeant’s with me,” my dad told the driver.
The driver said, “I understand, officer. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but did you know you have a headlight out too?”
My dad looked back at the cruiser. Sure enough, a headlight was out.
“Gimme that ticket back,” he told the driver.
When Dad got back in the cruiser, he told his sergeant, “we have a burned out headlight, too, so I tore up the ticket.”
The sergeant, embarrassed, said, “just take me back to station. And get this car fixed.”
Police have a duty to enforce the law. Dangerous stretches of road require additional policing and strict enforcement of codes. I would never argue otherwise.
But there real value of police officers is their service. Like the officer quoted at the top of this post said. Cities that use their police and courts to raise revenue don’t count lives saved or disasters averted when rating officers.
My dad liked being a presence in the community. He preferred walking the beat on foot patrol to riding in a car. “You never know what’s going on in a car,” he told me. “And nobody knew who you were.”
Ordinances are intended to increase safety and minimize danger to citizens. They’re not revenue streams. At least they shouldn’t be. The fine associated with safety tickets is a deterrent to the violator, not a tax for the government.
But too many St. Louis County cities use police and courts as a hidden tax on residents, visitors, and transients. Then people lose faith in police, in courts, and in the “system.” As Arch City Defenders found:
Many residents feel that municipal courts exist to collect fine revenue, not to dispense justice. “Absolutely they don’t want nothing but your money,” one defendant said, but “you get people out here who don’t make a whole lot of money.”38 He then described the startlingly common experience of being arrested, jailed, and instructed to call everybody he could think of who might have money to pay his fine—with the promise of three or four days in jail if he could not cobble together the sum.
That’s called a shakedown. How do shakedowns promote safety or dispense justice?
They don’t. They just piss people off and destroy communities.
I’m not excusing or condoning the terrorism that went on in Ferguson I’m saying some St. Louis County municipalities abuse their police and courts, making residents despise and distrust the law. And when the people distrust the law, the lawless have an open door to wreck havoc on the community.
And, to some degree, that’s what happened. That’s what Tom Schweich, Eric Schmitt, and others are trying to fix.