Like many of you, I often head off to work in the morning taking the dreaded Beltline (if ever there was a more compelling reason to take the bus, this is prima facie proof)! Since I am typically in the office downtown between 6:30-7:00 a.m., traffic flow is not at gridlock (yet) and I often feel like the Pied Piper (or the pace car at Indy) leading a parade of vehicles who desperately want to pass me but are fearful of doing so knowing full well that the loosely camouflaged car driving the posted speed limit is a cop!
For those too busy being inattentive on their cell phones or still in their morning stupor and half asleep, there has been more than one occasion when a passing car has blown my doors off going at least 15-20 over the speed limit. Since this is clearly beyond the pale of my tolerances for excessive speed, folks such as these get pulled over for a personal audience with the Chief. It was based on one such traffic stop as well as some commonly invoked urban myths that come up during community forums that prompted this reflection.
When I made contact with this particular speeder, explained why he was being pulled over, noted the posted signs displaying the speed limits, and started to discuss potential fine amounts as well as points that could be assessed against his driver’s license (if convicted), he made a snarky comment about whether I had met my “quota” for the month since everyone was speeding and I singled him out. Sigh… As those of us in this line of work have come to appreciate, this is not an uncommon response (or thought) from those who are deflecting or minimizing their own unlawful behavior in order to make the officer feel like their time should be better spent chasing down “real” criminals. Resisting the urge to reply with a similarly sarcastic response (“Sir, we have no “quotas;” officers are free to write as many tickets as they like), I instead took the high road and made this a “teachable moment,” as I think that there are members in our community that earnestly believe that there is a traffic quota of tickets that must be written on a monthly basis for a heavily-relied upon revenue stream. In speaking on behalf of the City of Madison Police Department, there is NO quota system for traffic tickets!
Wisconsin state statue (349.025) expressly prohibits law enforcement agencies/officers from requiring a specific number of citations, complaints or warning notices. This law has been on the books since 1999. Unlike some of the stories we read about nationwide, our staffing is not inextricably linked to our traffic enforcement; the fees generated from citations are dissected and earmarked for various obligations that must be met through state and local initiatives, but the Police Department is not a direct beneficiary for the fines that are paid resulting from traffic violations.
Our standard operating procedures (SOP’s) regarding traffic enforcement and crash investigations are noted in this blog. Implicit with these SOP’s is our desire to create safer driving conditions by being faithful to the three “E’s”; education, enforcement and engineering improvements.
PURPOSE: The traffic enforcement objective of the Madison Police Department (MPD) is to reduce traffic crashes and injuries and to facilitate the safe and expeditious flow of vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic through VOLUNTARY COMPLIANCE (my emphasis) with traffic regulations.
TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT: Officers should take appropriate enforcement action to address unsafe driving, bicyclist or pedestrian behavior, focusing on areas with a high incidence of traffic crashes as well as being responsive to neighborhood and citizen complaints. (Did you know that in spite of all the high profile issues trending in our community, i.e., racial disparities, heroin overdoses, gun violence, etc., “traffic” complaints rank among the issues most commonly invoked as a top priority from community forums, emails, district feedback, etc.).
Prior to assuming the role of Chief, I was assigned to the Training Team for many years. As a primary instructor, countless hours were spent on noting and discussing an officer’s discretion in so many domains, including traffic enforcement. As both a trainer and now as Chief, I have always urged our officers to use their discretionary powers in reasonable ways that strive for the “best possible resolutions (BPR’s); and that should NOT always equate with writing a citation or making an arrest. In fact, officers are challenged to think out of the box in finding creative means to avoid citations and arrest. For example, when one considers the vast array of the violations listed in Wisconsin’s motor vehicle code, I would argue that many objectives are achievable through education and reasonable efforts to gain compliance. Additionally, MPD Officers are urged to apply equity and field applications of restorative justice to their decision making calculus. Let me try to illustrate with a hypothetical…
This is where the officer has the opportunity to exercise sound discretion in holding people responsible for their actions (or inaction), giving due consideration for what is important in advancing public safety, how best to achieve compliance, and what is reasonable under the totality of the circumstances that will demonstrate to citizens that we are being fair; i.e., our outcomes (BPR’s) are not owing to motivations based on revenue or profiling or punishment, or ? ? ?
Each of the violations noted above are representative of the four major categories of offenses related to the operation of vehicles. From a legal standpoint, an officer COULD issue four separate citations. The question then becomes, SHOULD the officer issue all four? In my Department, officers are discouraged from the practice of “stacking” or “pyramiding” offenses. I asked members of the City Attorney’s Office as well as the Municipal Court Judge whether they have seen any telltale signs that this phenomenon has crept into our workplace. I was informed that this is not the norm whatsoever for Madison cops. If such an example did manifest itself, it is not the desire (or the intent) of the City Attorney’s Office to pile on and it would be highly unlikely for all of these offenses to be charged out.
So how do we best approach the hypothetical? Clearly, moving/hazardous violations are the most compelling to public safety; and the majority of these offenses result in citations. Even in cases like these, however, an officer may explore mitigating factors (i.e., a driver’s unblemished driving history or “where” the event is occurring . . .a school zone with children present or reckless driving through a residential neighborhood pose greater risks of harm than speeding on a highway).
With respect to registration violations, all of us who own and operate vehicles are expected to properly license and insure them. Even those individuals who may not be eligible to apply for a driver’s license can still have their vehicles registered and insured. But what if the officer discovers that the reason for the expired tag is because the driver is between jobs, money is tight, and this individual had to make a choice between having enough money to pay the rent that was due or renewing the registration tag. While some would argue that this is not the problem or the province of the people, I see this as an opportunity to craft a street level solution that can balance the necessities of having a currently registered/insured vehicle while showing some willingness to embrace an individual’s difficult economic circumstances with a measure of compassion.
For example, once I have stopped the vehicle for the expired tag, I can note/memorialize the facts of the stop—at a certain time and place, I pulled over the driver (who was positively identified and provided me with proof of a current address) for the expired registration tag. I run the person and the vehicle’s information through data channels to establish, in fact, that the tags were expired. At this point, I could tell the driver that I am giving him a certain amount of days to pay for his current year’s registration tag. If after the agreed upon amount of time had elapsed, I will then re-run all of his information. . .if the matter has been resolved at the DMV, we’re good! If it is STILL expired, then I will be serving the ticket in-person or mail the driver a citation for the expired tags, using the original stop date and time as the basis for my citation. These are the kinds of options I encourage our officers to consider as we encounter our citizens. And let’s not forget that we can also issue warnings (verbal or written) in an incident like this. By adopting a philosophy of gaining compliance that is not wholly reliant on writing citations for everything, our “actions” are more in line with our lofty platitudes expressed as part of our values as MPD Officers (http://www.cityofmadison.com/police/about/mission.cfm).
What about the equipment violation listed? Again, our objective is to get the vehicle up to safety standards. Sometimes, the motorist isn’t even aware of a benign problem with their car . . .do we really need to cite someone when bringing the matter to their attention? Of course not! Oftentimes, a compliance warning can be utilized. A ticket need not be the first default unless it can be shown that this particular equipment violation is egregious and places people at risk (in which case the vehicle ought to be legally parked and contingency plans made) or it is known that the driver has been cited and warned repeatedly for the chronic offense(s) and has not performed the necessary changes.
There are many layers of complexity when it comes to driver’s licenses. First of all, someone who has no license or is revoked/suspended cannot be allowed to continue driving even if a warning is issued. . .we cannot “enable” the violation to continue by issuing a warning and then waving to the motorist as they continue toward their destination. But officers are encouraged to look at the underlying circumstances which resulted in the person not having a valid license. What if it is a “youthful” driver from a family that cannot afford to pay for the costly behind-the-wheel driver’s education? Perhaps this would be an opportunity to park the car, drive the youth home, and have a conversation about a pilot program being offered by the County that will provide an opportunity to get help in paying for this training (https://www.countyofdane.com/press/details.aspx?id=3610).
Maybe the individual lost their license due to unpaid traffic tickets or has an outstanding Dane County child support lien? Perhaps the path of less difficulty would be to park the car and provide information on a driver’s license recovery program that is being administered by the YWCA (Review Driver’s License Recovery information).
What is MPD Policy with respect to traffic crashes? This is an area of our SOP’s which is quite explicit in our directives to officers:
ISSUANCE OF CITATIONS AT MOTOR VEHICLES CRASHES:
Officers SHALL (my emphasis) issue citations in any crash where probable cause exists for a violation that is a causal factor in the crash.
Note that a ticket is not always issued; driver factors (i.e., inattentiveness), witness statements (if applicable), investigatory steps taken at the crash site, etc., must rise to the legal threshold of “probable cause” before a citation can be issued to the culpable driver.
(By the way, did you know that as of this writing, MPD has investigated eight traffic-related fatalities in 2015? Contrast this with our four homicides to date. I have also included below the 2014 listing of our top ten intersections for traffic crashes. This is the type of valuable information that may facilitate some fundamental engineering modifications to lessen the likelihood of crash activity).
#1 Intersection: Stoughton Road @ Buckeye Road ……………………………… 43 crashes
#2 Intersection: Stoughton Road @ Pflaum Road ……………………………….. 38 crashes
#3 Intersection: Gammon Road @ Highway 12 & 14 …………………………….. 37 crashes
#4 Intersection: Stoughton Road @ Highway 30 …………………………………. 37 crashes
#5 Intersection: Mineral Point Road @ Pleasant View Road ……………………. 34 crashes
#6 Intersection: Highway 12 & 14 @ Midvale Boulevard/Verona Road ………… 30 crashes
#7 Intersection: Stoughton Road @ Highway 12 & 18 ……………………………..28 crashes
#8 Intersection: Whitney Way @ Odana Road …………………………………….. 25 crashes
#9 Intersection: Verona Road & Atticus Way ………………………………………. 24 crashes
#10 Intersection: Whitney Way @ Highway 12 ……………………………………. 24 crashes
By way of review, it is NOT our practice (or a part of the MPD culture) to engage motorists based on profiling traits or to use the motor vehicle code as a pretext to targeting individuals for purposes of deportation. There is no desire or expectation to use tickets as a mechanism for generating revenue. There IS every hope and desire to make our City a safer motoring community, achieved through a multi-pronged approach incorporating education, compliance incentives, enforcement, reasonableness, equity and respectfulness as our benchmarks.
It is unsettling enough to be pulled over; my officers understand and appreciate this. That is why it is critically important that we debunk the myths and inaccurate perceptions. If left unchecked, these perceptions contribute to barriers of mistrust about the MPD.
This post was originally published on November 19, 2015 on Chief Koval’s blog.