“When I first started in this job thirty years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement,” Utica Police Chief Michael Reaves told the Detroit News. “But if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That’s just the reality nowadays.” Nothing produces bizarre behavior quite as reliably as an inappropriate economic incentive, whether we’re talking about the infamous “Sec 179” SUV tax deduction or every Aerosmith album after, and including, “Permanent Vacation.” Is it any surprise, therefore, that most police departments have, over time, shifted their focus away from crimes that don’t pay them in favor of those that do? Murder, rape, theft, vandalism, assault—all offenses that require considerably more effort than apprehending a 44-in-a-35, and none of them containing the kind of guaranteed municipal vigorish that can be garnished from a hapless motorist.
There’s a fine associated with virtually every criminal activity in the United States, from oral sodomy to aggravated murder. But the fines are rarely levied and even more rarely collected. It’s fairly difficult to wring ten grand out of someone who just got done serving a decade in prison, and even tougher to collect from someone sitting on Death Row. The motorist, by contrast, is an easy mark who almost always pays his fine and who can be cited with a trivial amount of effort. With the advent of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems and red-light cameras, it’s no longer even necessary to have a cop present.
The fines generated by traffic citations, in addition to being vastly out of proportion to those generated from other avenues of law enforcement, are both regressive and punitive. It’s now common for a speeding ticket in Ohio to run in excess of two hundred dollars—utterly crippling for the working poor, particularly when the only “offense” involved is driving with the flow of traffic. Consider that the maximum fine for a fifth-degree felony in Ohio is $2,500. The ridiculousness of charging a tenth of that for driving “six over” becomes even more apparent.
The uneven incentive for enforcement associated with outrageous traffic fines has altered the behavior of even the most civic-minded police departments. It’s common to see shiny “freeway patrol” cruisers idling on the Midwest’s inner-city freeways while near-anarchy reigns in the under-patrolled streets beneath. Cops are following the money. It’s as simple as that.
There’s a simple solution to the problem. It’s one that has the potential to restore balance to law enforcement activities, restore the trust between police and citizens, and significantly affect the amount of non-traffic-related crime taking place in most communities. Moving violations should be punished with “points” or criminal penalties exclusively. There should be no fine whatsoever for any offense committed by a motorist outside of parking violations.
Taking the fiscal incentive out of traffic enforcement would force governments to accurately measure the true benefit to their communities of various enforcement priorities. It would get cops out of their air-conditioned glass palaces and into contact with the people they are hired to serve and protect. There would finally be a chance, and a reason, for an honest, analytical nationwide discussion about the actual benefits of traffic enforcement. The all-too-true stereotype of the “jackbooted thug” idling in his cruiser could be replaced by examples of real cops serving as a genuine deterrent in crime-ridden areas.
A nation without overzealous traffic enforcement would be a nation where children didn’t observe their parents lying to police officers. It would be a nation where people might be happy to see a cop walking around, not terrified of being “nicked” for a rolling stop. Last but not least, it would be a nation where citizens all bore a similar burden for supporting police services while having a greater say in how that support was put to use.
The alternative—a nation where the bulk of enforcement effort is seemingly determined by the available revenue from that enforcement—is already a reality in Britain. It isn’t working. Photo traffic enforcement is speeding the country towards Big Brother, while reducing respect for the rule of law.
Why bring that failed model to the United States? Why take cops off the streets and replace them with cameras? Why withdraw police from high crime areas at the same time that highway patrol departments are receiving shiny new laser guns?
Speeding may not be something that our society can ignore. But as a society, we are best served when it is treated as a crime like any other, not as a honeypot for governmental corruption, concupiscence, and stupidity.