Policing or Profiteering?

As I write this, May 2010 is in its final days, spring is in full swing, and schools are calling the year a wrap with an eye to summer vacation. And of course, the annual pre-Memorial Day law enforcement initiative known as "Click-It-or-Ticket" is on and coming to a highway near you! And as always, in the form of letters to the editor and newspaper reader's comments, all manner of blog posts, and snide remarks by the recently ticketed, are the howls of outrage that, "These tickets are never about safety! They are just a way to raise revenue on the backs of hard-working, law-abiding citizens."

But the purpose of this article is not to attack or defend, or even discuss, "Click-It-or-Ticket." If not that program, many of the same howlers would latch onto targeted speed enforcement, DUI patrols and checkpoints, and any number of other initiatives.

There have always been those suspicious, and complaining, that law enforcement efforts targeting certain offenses (traffic, parking and certain local ordinances, in particular) were more concerned with generating revenue, via fine monies, than in promoting safety or protecting the public interest. Now, I know that most of us do effectively narrow our focus to the matters of greatest importance. I hope most of us cite those most in need of citation, and warn those for whom a warning is enough, with no consideration of whether or not we are helping fill the government piggy banks.

In any given day I observe countless minor violations of the Illinois Vehicle Code I choose to take a pass on. Of those I do stop, if the driver has a valid license and insurance, a reasonably good driving record, is clear of warrants and not taking part in other criminal activity, and respectful, they are probably going to be on their way with nothing worse than a warning. Likewise, many minor statutory or ordinance violations I am called to can be resolved with a bit of education and a handshake. Other cops may hold different philosophies but this works for me, and somehow I still manage to be one of the top arrest producers in my department. I could write a ticket book worth of citations each day before lunch, but I choose to aim for quality enforcement over quantity of enforcement. Of the cops I work, know and correspond with, I think my style is the rule rather than an exception. (And for the record, in fourteen years as a cop I have written a grand total of one seatbelt ticket. It was late 1997. I still feel bad about it.)

We can offer explanations and counterarguments to dispel persistent rumors and notions we are intent on shaking down beleaguered citizens whose taxes grant us the authority and compensation to do so in the first place, but they will be largely scoffed at. No need to bore you with a recitation of their common slanders of our intentions; you have heard them all by now, anyway, and could only add to the list. But the purpose of this article is not to prompt frustrated reader reaction to an unappreciative, uncomprehending, misguided, etc, etc, etc... populace. Way too easy, but ultimately unproductive.

The purpose of this article is to elicit thoughtful self-examination, and hopefully some dialogue, among ourselves that transcends traditional counter-sniping with the haters. What I want to do is threefold: first, to consider the modern etiology of the idea of the police as modern day, government-sanctioned highwaymen; second, to examine whether there may be a grain (or more) of truth to the idea, at least on some level and; third, to ask whether, if we are being placed or pressured into that role, is it an appropriate use of our police power or misguided, counterintuitive, and possibly even unethical, mismanagement.

It is not hard to understand the origins behind the notion of what some have coined policing for profit. Ours is a society where most working people in the private sector earn their living by making a profit from goods or services, either as the owner of the goods or services selling them to others, or as an employee of the owner who shares in the profit through a wage. Much of their attention is thus consumed. It can be hard for some of them to understand, then, when something takes place (police enforcement) for which a payment is required (a fine upon conviction) that the motive is anything but profit-driven. Almost all of them do understand the need for very serious offenses to have consequences, but question just how serious are some of the offenses most otherwise law-abiding citizens are likely to commit (traffic and parking, etc) that cost them a significant sum of money.

These same people understand our economy is still very volatile and states, counties and cities are struggling or, in some cases, flat broke. In an information saturated and web-connected world, volumes of articles and opinion pieces are at their fingertips discussing and debating police salaries and benefits, taxpayer pension obligations, police corruption, cameras to catch red light and speed violators, criminal and civil asset forfeitures of suspected offenders of all stripes, and how the poor economy threatens police service. Is it really any wonder some conclude our enforcement efforts are monetarily, rather than safety, motivated?

"Nonsense," you might say, "this is all just the public's mistaken perception." Maybe, but consider that, without contradictory evidence, perception becomes the accepted reality, regardless of truth, and much of the public assume our motivation for our most visible activity - traffic enforcement - is to generate revenue anyway. Unfortunately, there is plenty of supporting evidence easily found, and much of it offered up by police officers. Consider the following:

  • In a November 2008 Detroit News article ("Traffic Fines Help Fill City Coffers" - 11/17/2008) on dramatic increases in traffic citations issued in Detroit and its suburbs, Utica, MI Police Chief Michael Reaves was quoted, "When I first started in this job thirty years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement. But if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That's just the reality nowadays."
  • An April 2010 article in the Springfield (IL) State Journal Register ("Area Sheriffs Concerned About State Police Cutbacks" - 4/4/2010) focused mainly on safety and response implications of an Illinois State Police reduction in force and closing of five ISP district headquarters, but a significant portion of the story were various sheriffs and county officials bemoaning the potential loss to the counties in fine revenue. Perhaps an understandable concern, but the very public assertions only reinforce the perception that "tickets are really about the money."
  • Quoted in a recent Cincinnati.com article ("Police Divided Over Merits of Ticket Quotas" - 5/13/2010), Woodlawn, OH Police Chief Walter Obermeyer was about as frank as one can be while promoting ticket standards (quotas?) via a department memo, stating if each officer wrote at least ten tickets a month $194,000 could be generated for the city annually. He continued, "If we would send our criminal cases into Mayor's Court instead of downtown, it would generate even more revenue." He warned, "Officers who do not meet the standards will not receive their step increases or pay raises when the village approves them." When the story was reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Obermeyer redacted the mention of discipline from the memo.
  • And it was reported in January of this year, in the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard that Auburn, NY Police Chief Gary Giannotta announced in a police staff meeting a new citation standard for his department’s patrol officers: Each officer must write one traffic citation per shift worked or face discipline - and his stated purpose was allegedly to increase fine revenue for the city by $2500 per month ("Auburn Police Chief Wants Officers to Write at Least One Ticket a Day to Raise Money for City" - 1/13/2010). His directive appears to be in violation of state labor laws.

These are just a few of the documented incidents where apparent evidence of policing for profit exists or is being pushed, at least on a localized scale, in some jurisdictions. There are plenty more anecdotal examples, sometimes as described by directly affected police officers, lending further credence to the perception.

Among LEOs themselves, opinions vary as to whether this phenomenon really exists or whether, if it does, it is to be commended or condemned. On one hand, if people are going to commit violations of the law, and we are to address those violations, then why not step up enforcement, improve public safety, and help our employers out in this tough economy. There are many non-LEO citizens who are supportive of that idea, as well. The opposing view generally takes the stance that, "Yes, it is our job to enforce the law and hold people accountable and this sometimes means they are going to have to face the consequences and pay a fine. But we should enforce the law because it is our job and it is the right thing to do, but only for the sake of the law and its safety and justice purposes only, and always mindful of the discretion we are afforded. The money should never factor into our decision."

Now, those are very simplified versions of very complex arguments, or course, but they present a framework for our closing questions:

  • Does "policing for profit" exist; where there are written or unwritten expectation officers will enforce the law with an eye toward revenue enhancement?
  • Have you ever been directed or pressured to increase your enforcement efforts in order to generate more revenue for your governing body? Do you know any brother or sister officers who have?
  • Are practices such as enforcement quotas (where still legal) or "performance standards/goals/expectations" (where "quotas" are not legal) good for officers, agencies, or communities? Or do they cross into the realm of unethical practice? Why?
  • Is enforcement with an eye toward revenue good practice? or is it unethical, or falling somewhere in between? Why?

We invite your thoughts and responses, in the comments section of this column if you wish them to be public, or to my email (ofcmike@gmail.com) if you do not, signed or anonymous. We hope to hear from you.