Demand for money for many police traffic constitutions

Nicholas Bowser outside his home in Oklahoma City, Okla, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. (Nick Oxford / The New York Times)

Harold Brown contributed to the local treasury just like many others in Valley Brook, Oklahoma: a police officer saw the light above his license plate go out.

“Did you pull me because of that? Come on, man, ”said Brown, a security guard who left home from work at 1:30. It was enough for him to express his anger. The officer yelled at Brown, ordered him out of the car, and threw him onto the sidewalk.

After a trip to jail that night in 2018, with his hands in handcuffs and blood running down his face, Brown finally got to the heart of the matter: Valley Brook wanted $ 800 in fines and fees. It was a fraction of about a million dollars collected by a city of about 870 residents each year from traffic accidents.

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The hidden stage of financial incentives supports police surveillance of drivers in the United States, which encourages some communities to essentially transform armed officers into tax agents looking for violations that are largely unrelated to public safety. Therefore, driving is one of the most common daily routines, among which people are shot, shocked by a paralyzer, beaten or arrested after minor offenses.

Some of these meetings – such as those with Sandra Bland, Walter Scott and Philand Castile – are now notorious and have contributed to a national turnaround due to race and police. The New York Times has identified more than 400 others from the past five years in which police officers killed unarmed civilians who were not prosecuted for violent crimes.

The culture of stopping traffic is fostered by the federal government, which annually issues more than $ 600 million in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing. Although federal officials say they do not impose quotas, at least 20 states have assessed police performance in terms of the number of traffic stops per hour, which critics say contributes to excessive surveillance and erosion of public confidence, especially among members of certain racial groups.

Many municipalities across the country rely heavily on ticket revenues and court fees to pay for government services, and some maintain large police administrations to help generate that money, according to a review of hundreds of municipal audit reports, city budgets, court files, and state highways. . records.

This is mostly not a big city phenomenon. While Chicago stands out as a large city with a history of collecting millions from drivers, the cities most dependent on such revenue have fewer than 30,000 people. More than 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10% of their revenues, which is enough to pay the entire police force in some smaller communities, according to an analysis of census data.

To show how dependence on ticket revenues can shape traffic enforcement, the Times examined the practices of three states – Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia – where police traffic constitutions have sparked controversy. A web of conflicts and contradictions emerges that we often do not acknowledge or explain.

Money machine

Newburgh Heights, a torn industrial village of about half a square mile with 2,000 residents south of Cleveland, is persistently monitoring traffic on the short stretch of Interstate 77 that runs through.

His 21 police officers are circling around looking for vehicles to stop and directing speed cameras from the Harvard Avenue overpass or from a folding chair along the highway.

In total, revenue from traffic indications, which typically account for more than half of the city’s budget, was $ 3 million in 2019. Some of that money is processed through the Newburgh Heights Mayor’s Court, one of 286 anachronistic court offices that survive, mostly in small towns, across Ohio.

A 2019 U.S. Civil Liberties Union report from the Ohio found that 1 in 6 traffic fines in the country were issued in cities with mayoral courts, which the ACLU described as a “shady and irresponsible virtual court system that exploits driver revenue. “

Due to the fixation on revenue, the mayor’s courts have become a permanent source of controversy. Long-standing complaints about small Lindale with 160 residents, which earns as much as a million dollars a year due to rapid traps, have led to a ban by mayoral courts in cities with less than 200 residents.

Trevor Elkins, mayor of Newburgh Heights, said the increasing use of cameras in his city has reduced the need for traffic stops, although the latter are still disproportionately high according to state data.

Mayors publicly insist that their courts are not used to generate money, and privately this is often at the center of their concerns. The mayor’s court in Bratenahl, a wealthy suburb on Lake Erie, usually has more than twice as many traffic cases each year, according to state records, as there are residents in the city.

Bratenahl with 1,300 residents, 83 percent of whom are white, uses its approximately 18 police officers to patrol the Interstate 90 area that surrounds the city’s border with Cleveland, where half the population is black. As a result, many days in Mayor Bratenahl’s court are mostly black.

Mayor John Licastro said police officers are simply following the law.

“We don’t choose who drives the Shoreway,” he said.

Elkins offered a similar defense to Newburgh Heights, where blacks make up about 22% of the population but often make up the majority in its mayor’s court. The Times’s analysis of more than 4,000 traffic reports found that 76% of license and insurance violations and 63% of speeding cases involved black drivers.

Public safety and profitability

On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma State Charles J. Hanger made one of the most famous stops on the road.

To the north after I-35, Hanger spotted a 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis without a license plate. Its driver was Timothy McVeigh, who about 90 minutes earlier had blown up a truck full of explosives in front of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people in what was then the worst terrorist act on American soil.

The McVeigh case has the status of a myth among police officers, for whom it is an indispensable answer to concerns that many traffic constitutions are excuses for collecting revenue or for no reason to seek evidence of other crimes. But researchers and some former police chiefs say that for every occasional happy break, hundreds of innocent drivers are subjected to unnecessary scrutiny, cost, and potential danger.

In fiscal year 2019, Valley Brook in Oklahoma raised more than $ 100,000 from tickets for “broken equipment,” such as Brown’s blown light, with quotes being issued on average almost every day.

Most stops in this city, which is less than half a square mile, happen along a four-lane road. Valley Brook collects 72% of its fine income, the highest in the state.

Chief Michael A. Stamp defended the practices of the police administration. Because their jurisdiction covers only one block along the main road, he said, officers are looking for broken taillights or “wide bends” to catch more serious offenses.

“Every night I put cops on the street with the sole purpose of prosecuting for drugs and alcohol because that’s such a big problem we have here,” Stamp said. He acknowledged the city’s dependence on traffic fines, but added: “I will stick to the fact that what we do here also saves lives.”

By some standards, 38-year-old Nicholas Bowser is just the kind of driver the manager says he wants to get off the road. Instead of stopping around midnight on July 2, he led police officers on a hunt from Valley Brook to his home, about a mile away. After his surrender, police found a gun at his feet and found that his blood alcohol content had exceeded the legal limit.

That might be enough for Bowser to stop driving for a while or put a court-ordered breathalyser in his truck. But the next day he took his truck out of jail. All he had to do was pay $ 2,185.11 in Valley Brook’s anticipated fines and fees.

Local police have charged him with “negligent driving” and “public poisoning” – lesser crimes than driving under the influence of alcohol, which should be transferred to the district court. Some lawyers say the 2016 law, which was designed to prevent alcohol-related driving records from preventing repeat offenders from remaining hidden in local court systems, encouraged cities to lower their offense ratings, keep tickets – and revenue.

In an interview, Bowser said, “I should get a DUI.” This summer, after requesting a jury trial, Valley Brook dropped the charges against him and returned about $ 2,000.

After details of the case involving Brown emerged, these allegations were also dismissed, a police officer was disciplined, and Stamp called to apologize. Nonetheless, Brown has sued the city, which he claims has turned traffic into a ruthless profit-making company.

“They’re lawless,” he said.

Quota culture

When police in Windsor, Virginia last December threatened and sprayed Black and Latin Army Lt. Caron Nazario for violating a license plate, violence by police brought headlines nationally in April. Officials fired one of the police officers involved and labeled the case an aberration. But stopping traffic was routine in many ways.

Windsor is one of nearly 100 communities in Virginia that receive federal subsidies for incentive tickets. Annual grants awarded by state authorities last year ranged from $ 900 to the village of Exmore for prosecuting ridiculed seat belts to $ 1 million to Fairfax County for prosecuting for driving under the influence of alcohol. Windsor got $ 15,750 for the target speed.

There is no doubt that these donations affect the economy and frequency of traffic stops.

Jessica Cowardin, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said the number of citations is “just one of many things we look at to assess how effective a donation is.” She added: “We do not require or encourage donation-funded police departments to issue the prescribed number of traffic statements.”

But a review of government grant applications found that the number of traffic stops is usually a measure of performance.

For all the billions the police have spent on promoting ticket writing, there is little evidence that this has helped achieve the main goal of the grant: reducing fatal road accidents.

There were 33,244 fatal accidents across the country in 2019, compared to 30,296 in 2010. Traffic safety experts say targeted work is being done, but improvements in automotive technology and highway engineering account for much of the progress since 70. exceeded 40,000.

Following George Floyd’s protests, some municipalities and states are reconsidering their approach to stopping traffic. Berkeley in California proposed a move away from police prosecution in favor of an unarmed civilian corps. Virginia lawmakers have banned shutdowns due to faulty taillights, tinted windows and loud exhaust.

The outage from the Nazario case prompted Windsor to look for ways to slow down traffic “while reducing contact with police and citizens,” including electronic signs and rumbling tapes. Windsor Police also abolished donation-funded patrols, saying it was “in the best interests of our agency and our community.”

When the city council presented a new budget for the next financial year, it envisioned an increase in revenue from all but one of the main sources: traffic fines.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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