Traffic Tickets: A New Bargaining Chip for Police Unions

Police departments have become addicted to traffic ticket revenue much in the same way that other levels of government are addicted to revenue from gambling and lotteries.

From a policing and road safety perspective, ticket revenue was never intended to become a major revenue stream.  Ticket revenue was a by-product of traffic enforcement.  In its purest form traffic enforcement is conducted as an evidence based activity targeting either particular offences or particular locations that, based on the evidence, can be shown to detract from road safety.

Police departments have the ability to gather the required intelligence to be able to set enforcement strategies based on objective criteria that link enforcement to road safety and not revenue.  However, no matter how desirable an increased level of road safety may be, it does not translate well into dollars to fill gaps in police budgets.  The result is that many police departments continue to utilize enforcement strategies that maximize the number of tickets issued and the fine revenue generated – and not road safety.

Police Unions are quickly picking up on this trend and traffic enforcement, or rather the lack thereof, is becoming a powerful bargaining chip for police unions.  Existing legislation on issues such as arrest and the issuing of traffic tickets is worded in such a way that officers “may arrest” or “may” issue a ticket.  It does not say they shall or must.  Officers have discretion and may use other approaches to deal with traffic violators.  Legally they are allowed to issue warnings as opposed to issuing tickets.

It seems that some officers in Dekalb County, Georgia are doing just that.  In June and July of 2009 the number of traffic citations issued by officers dropped from 23,797 to 19,029 and from 22,716 to 15,783, respectively, compared to 2010.  That is a 20% drop in June and a 30% drop in July.

The DeKalb County Police Department recently imposed an unpaid holiday policy that is not going over well with officers.  The union representing the officer denies that officers are on a ‘ticket furlough’ but do admit that there has been a decrease in morale. The Chief blames the reduction in tickets on other factors such as manpower, call volumes and officers’ use of discretion.  The reduction in tickets issued in June and July of 2010 represents 1.75 million dollars in lost revenue.  In 2010 DeKalb County projected 25.9 million dollars in ticket revenue.

Meanwhile in Spain, Guardia Civil (highway patrol officers) are protesting the introduction of a productivity bonus system that relates pay to performance.  In Spain fine revenues from tickets issued by Guardia Civil  in June of 2010 dropped 50% compared to June of 2009 despite increased patrols.  Guardia Civil does not have the right to strike but an unnamed union official said that highway patrols have every right to be ‘gentle’ with drivers.

The size of the bargaining chip or ‘hammer’ being handed to police unions is determined by the degree to which the organization is dependent on traffic ticket revenue.  A city or police department that plugs  large numbers (in the millions) into its budget from anticipated traffic fines can experience a hard fall if those numbers drop off, for whatever reason.

Jurisdictions that use photo radar technology for the bulk of their traffic fine generation may be somewhat immune to this phenomenon.   Machines (photo radar), once installed, cannot take furloughs, go on strike or use discretion.  They just churn out tickets and revenue 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.