In 2011, "the Highway Enforcement Command shifted its mission from citywide traffic enforcement to a focus on the major highways such as IH-35, MoPac and 183. As a consequence, the number of traffic citations declined from 224,662 in 2010 to 165,757 in 2011, a 26% reduction. The overall number of motor vehicle stops also decreased by 23%."
In 2012, "the Highway Enforcement Command shifted its focus to enforcing hazardous violations at top crash locations. This strategy seeks to reduce traffic fatalities and serious-injury crashes, but it also results in fewer citations issued and, therefore, fewer vehicles stopped."
"A second factor [in the 2012 decline] is the shrinking discretionary time available to patrol officers, who make most of the department’s traffic enforcement stops. The department’s uncommitted time (when patrol officers are not responding to calls for service) dropped from 27% in 2011 to 15% in 2012."
In 2013, "APD increased its department-wide focus on traffic safety, resulting in a 17% increase in the number of citations issued: from 106,927 in 2012 to 124,748 in 2013. This increase in citations drove the 2013 increase in traffic stops, most of which resulted in a citation."
"The increase in stops from 2013 to 2014 reflects the department’s continued emphasis on traffic enforcement. Prior to 2013, Austin’s traffic fatality count averaged 61 per year (10-year average), then rose sharply to 78 in 2012 and remained high at 75 in 2013."
"APD increased its department-wide focus on traffic enforcement beginning in 2013. As a result, citations increased 17% from 2012 to 2013, then increased an additional 5% from 2013 to 2014. This sustained increase in citations is reflected in the number of traffic stops."
The 2015 decrease was explained by "patrol staffing levels [having] declined from 88% in 2014 to 81% in 2015. This means that in 2015, 81% of patrol positions were filled and 19% were vacant."
"A second factor [in 2015] is the significant decrease in the time patrol officers have available for proactive and community policing. This proactive – or community engagement – time represents the time officers are not responding to calls for service. Community engagement time dropped from 19% in 2014 to 17% in 2015."
Those explanations sound reasonable, but there's cause to suspect they don't tell the whole story. They reflect very local concerns when in fact the decline in traffic stops is a statewide and national trend that transcends any one department. In Louisiana, the decline in traffic stops/tickets is responsible for their public defender crisis because attorneys for indigent defendants are paid for through traffic ticket revenue.
Grits strongly suspects there are larger, unseen trends at play here in addition to the management decisions described above. A few guesses: Increased vehicle safety from sensors as we migrate toward driverless cars; fewer teenagers choosing to get a driver's license; the rise of video games, cable TV and home entertainment options that reduce young people's day-to-day travel. ¿Quien sabe? There are undoubtedly many more hypotheses to explore (and Grits readers are strongly encouraged to suggest them in the comments). But to explain the broader trend, we'll need to identify macro-level causes. APD's micro explanations don't necessarily justify such a massive drop.