Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Austin PD traffic stops up 30% last year, more than 1 in 20 result in arrest

How can a one-year, 30% increase in traffic stops by Austin police be justified?

I could scarcely believe my eyes when I examined the City of Austin's most recent racial profiling report (pdf, published 3-2-09), and read that the number of traffic stops increased to 230,949 in 2008 from only 178,087 in 2007. Reasons given in the report for the increase were:
  1. patrol being near full staffing;
  2. the motors officers stopped taking routine calls for service and went back to working traffic enforcement full time;
  3. CompStat implementation that assigned officers to traffic enforcement in crime hotspots to increase visibility and proximity to crimes; and
  4. the Home for the Holidays initiative that added over 4,000 additional hours of sworn working on traffic enforcement.
But those are just tactics used to implement the APD administration's policies. In the big picture, this tells us Austin's new chief is dramatically shifting resources toward routine traffic patrol and away from other crimefighting tactics. At 52,000 additional traffic stops, that's a major, one-year re-allocation of staffing resources.

Though officials will certainly claim the reason is public safety, it's hard not to suspect that revenue generation must be at least part of the motive.

Another eye-popping figure: The number of consent searches at traffic stops increased a whopping 106%, but that figure is deceptive because the overall numbers were small. In 2007, APD conducted just 211 searches, while in 2008 the number jumped to 435. The number of "consent searches" in Austin has been much lower in recent years after the agency implemented a policy of requiring written consent if an officer didn't have probable cause to search.

Still 106% is far beyond a statistically significant increase. My hypothesis to explain it (more in-depth research would be required to tell for sure): The jump is likely attributable to the CompStat tactic described in #3 above of over-enforcing traffic laws in violent crime hotspots. After all, this approach presumes that these are really "pretext stops," that the real purpose of pulling people over is as an excuse to look for evidence of other crimes.

In the big picture, though, the vast majority of Austin police searches at traffic stops in 2008 - 11,637 of them, to be exact - were "non-consent" searches. Of those, 15.8% were based on safety frisks, 38.9% were incidental to arrest, and 25.6% were based on probable cause.

In 2008, Austin PD arrested someone at more than one out of every 20 traffic stops - at 11,353 traffic stops in 2008 representing 5.3% of all APD traffic stops. The top three reasons for arrests:
  • 5,388 for outstanding warrants.
  • 3,486 because the driver was intoxicated.
  • 1,002 because the driver was in possession of illegal drugs.
Arresting folks for outstanding warrants isn't too difficult given that more than one in ten Texas drivers have them, mostly because traffic fines and fees have become so steep many people cannot pay.

An additional 2,740 stops could have resulted in arrest, but the officers used their discretion to write a "field release citation" instead, which reduced considerably the number of new entrants to jail.

Pedestrian stops by APD also increased by 29% from 2007 to 2008, to 18,111. In this area, the use of "field release citations" was especially pronounced - the procedure was used 7,673 times, or in 42.4% of all pedestrian stops. An additional 20.7% of pedestrian stops (3,742) resulted in a custody arrest.

A 30% increase in traffic stops seems hard to justify. Sure, it helps fill the city coffers, but there's an opportunity cost: What other areas are being understaffed while APD officers write 30% more tickets or play the role of bill collector/enforcer for outstanding traffic fines?


Hook Em Horns said...

Follow the money....

Don Dickson said...

Grits, I'm in your corner on a lot of issues, but this is one instance in which I have to defend the cops.

An army may travel on its stomach, but crime and criminals travel in cars. Aggressive traffic enforcement in general, and particularly in high-crime areas, truly IS a crime-fighting effort. DPS officers are trained to "look beyond the traffic stop" for criminal activity that goes above-and-beyond a simple speed or seat belt violation. And they take down an awful lot of criminals this way.

Yes, they also take down a lot of those 2.3 million "fugitives." I'll agree with you that that is a ridiculous number, and that all these surcharges are equally ridiculous and wholly ineffective at achieving deterrence. But when you stop someone for speeding and find out he's got a warrant, at least you've reduced the number to 2.3 million minus one.

The increase in consent searches doesn't bother me a whole lot because of the written consent policy. At least folks know that they don't HAVE to consent, and at least they know they HAVE consented.

I really don't accept that there is a financial motive for the increased traffic enforcement. It's not like APD gets the money, and I'm not persuaded that Chief Acevedo would bow to that kind of pressure from Mark Ott, nor even that Ott would exert that kind of pressure.

No, I honestly believe it's a crime-fighting measure. And probably an effective one.

I'm also pleased to see two-thousand-and-some class B misdemeanants who didn't spend the night in the pokey. That too is progress.

Anonymous said...

Money, money, and more money.

And the law enforcement community wonders why they are greeted with so little respect.

I could not help but notice that a larger portion of those arrested of those stopped were minoritites. But I am sure that that is due to some anomaly in the figures.

No wonder why I have little respect for law enforcement. The evidence is all too clear.

Hook Em Horns said...

Don Dickson said...

I really don't accept that there is a financial motive for the increased traffic enforcement.

Oh my God. Give me a Texas sized break and this from DPS counsel. The East Texas speed-traps bow your theory out of the water. There is a HUGE amount of money in traffic violations and tickets. Maybe APD doesn't see the reward but you can bet the city coffers do. And Don, at the numbers they released, ALL OF AUSTIN would be a high crime area according to your theory.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Don Dickson, which is considerable.

If this is the APD's new assault on the war on drugs then why not just say so.

It appears clear that this tactic is being used so why not just go ahead and apprise the citizens of Austin and then everybody will know where the crime fighting efforts are being laid.

They might even be proud of it if it were not thought of as a covert attempt to harass and penalize honest citizen's who happen to live in crime ridden neighborhoods.

Or instead of instituting a warrant enforcement force they just happen to catch those otherwise engaged in some other violation.

Or just a fact-finding mission trampling on the civil rights of those that happen to be in the wrong part of town.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for government raising revenue and eliminating crime, just don't tell me the sky is green when I know it is blue.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's just a coincidence that in the time Scott Henson has not been doing much police accountability work the practices in Austin and perhaps the state have begun to slide back to where they were before he was in that fight.

Anonymous said...

Wear your seatbelt, drive the speed limit, stop at red lights and don't roll them stop signs.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I would rather have police funded by tickets rather than taxpayers. And if it makes the streets a little safer... all the better.

Don Dickson said...

Boyness -- For the record, I am not a DPS attorney. I represent the Texas State Troopers Association. I'm labor, not management.

11:01, there's a lot to be said for your proposed solution. It never ceases to amaze me that a guy carrying kilos of narcotics in his car will drive 75/55 with no seat belt and a missing tail light. It's also pretty amusing when there are two or three passengers in the car, and when the officer asks where they're going they all give a different answer.

There's an old joke about four college kids who get drunk one night and miss an exam the next morning. They all tell the prof that they didn't show up because they had a flat tire en route to school. The prof agrees to give them a makeup exam. They all show up on time and open their exam books, and gasp audibly when they discover the makeup exam has only one question: Which tire was it?

JohnT said...

Scott, or anybody, I would appreciate a breakdown of traffic fines. How much goes to the state, how much to the county, how much to the municipality? And how much to the police?

My understanding from several years ago is that most of a fine goes to the state, the next largest part goes to the local police budget, and a small part to the town.

Is that correct, or do I need updating?

As for Mr. Dickson, I live in the heart of several speed traps - Westlake, Southlake, Keller, Roanoke. By far the worst is Westlake. These are not high crime areas, rather comfortable middle class exurbs. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram classes Westlake as "affluent rural."

These are speed traps, mainly, inspection stickers, late registration. Definitely not high-dope, high crime areas.

The Westlake trap upsets me the most because it is the most vigorous. I've seen two patrol cars and three motorcycle cops working a two-mile stretch to death.

And no, I haven't been ticketed. I use my cruise control to stay under the speed limit, stop at all yellows if I can, and wait three seconds at all stop signs. Plus, I know all the traps in my area for a 12 mile radius. But this razzia still offends me. What an unfriendly, robber baron way to raise revenue.

So, Scott and others, how is the revenue broken down by law and state regs? Isn't the major part that doesn't go to the state destined for the local police budget?

Don Dickson said...

I don't understand why people object to so-called "speed traps" and traffic law enforcement in general. Our streets and highways are dangerous. Having your vehicle inspected, registered and insured is the law, and speed limits are the law. If you don't obey the law, you have no right to complain about getting pulled over. And if you do obey the law, I don't know why you would have any objection to the cops stopping those who don't. Speed enforcement is often even more important on streets and roads with lower speed limits than on state and interstate highways - those are the areas with the most local traffic, and the most pedestrian traffic.

Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured vehicles of any of the fifty states. Get hit by one, and you'll wish some cop had pulled that driver over the previous day.

If I had my druthers, every mile of Texas would be a so-called "speed trap." It's not about revenue generation, it's about public safety. And in urban communities, it IS about fighting crime, too. Law enforcement officers are never more visible to the public than when they are engaged in traffic enforcement.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don Dixon writes, "It's not about revenue generation, it's about public safety."

Blah, blah ... Don, I know you're not that naive! If the public were confident that's true, there'd be less beefing. And the Lege wouldn't keep jacking the fees up to pay for every little thing.

Instead, overenforcement of traffic regulations is rightly seen (IMO) by many as an additional tax - especially the no-insurance tickets, driver responsibilty fees, etc. - and especially when it's happening on the scale it does in Texas, where 10% of drivers now have arrest warrants, mostly for traffic tickets.

Look at cities installing red-light cameras, to take a common example. Their goal is to extract money from motorists after the fact, even though lengthening the yellow by one-second would do (much) more to reduce accidents on the front end. Dallas County keeps its property taxes low by making up more than half its budget in fines and fees, and its commissioners court openly plots how to squeeze those who owe as a way to boost short-term revenue. (Then they complain they can't pay to properly staff the jail. The feds need to head there next after Harris County.)

I don't know what everybody's cut is, but fine amounts are too high and IMO too many traffic enforcement decisions are driven by revenue generation.

APD in particular, is facing high labor costs that are gutting other parts of the city budget.

My hunch: the budget crisis is putting a big strain on APD staffing costs right now (they're currently engaged in the "meet and confer" bargaining process) and if the union wants to keep their fat (predictably unsustainable) raises from their last contract, APD must increase the revenue officers generate and eat what it kills.

To 10:54, thanks for the vote of confidence, but it's not like things were trending ALL that great back when I was on the beat. ;)

Anonymous said...

DPS officers are trained to look for additional revenue.

Fixed that for you.

Also, my understanding is that DPS has become so revenue-centric that many troopers just write tickets and let folks go without looking deeper, since they have to make their revenue quota.

Anonymous said...

If this were NOT a revenue generator, then all tickets that did not produce a more serious crime would be dealt with by giving community service at the boys club, and no money involved. ALL citations are money makers. Traffic tickets are just the only ones that are STRICTLY for the money.

Todd said...

So Grits, would you rather police just sit around waiting for 911 calls to come in or be out there catching criminals?

You write, "What other areas are being understaffed while APD officers write 30% more tickets or play the role of bill collector/enforcer for outstanding traffic fines?"

I think you don't know what you are talking about in this instance. There were plenty of people arrested on these traffic stops for felonies and other serious crimes. Should the police just give up making traffic stops? Perhaps they should just ignore any warrant that you think isn't important enough to enforce?

Traffic stops are an important part of proactive policework. I have heard people complain that the police should be out catching the real criminals. Well that is what APD is doing and still you complain.

As for consent searches, you got your wish and written consent is required. The form is clear that that person can refuse at any time. I don't see your problem with it.

Anonymous said...

It's all about the money. Follow the revenue stream. That's the answer. Shame on you Don Dickson. You actually believe that DPS propaganda? I guess being a paid trooper-rep does make a difference.

Don Dickson said...

Well I can promise you that at DPS, writing tickets is NOT about revenue generation. DPS gets most of its funding from the gasoline tax.

And I would agree with you, Grits, that the fines are too high and the surcharges are a folly. But you can't blame the state or local cops for this.

Anonymous said...

Don and some others on this forum,

With no disrespect intended, I do NOT want to live in a police state, no matter how safe it is for me and mine. We all are guilty, some more so than others. At least 90% of us have committed a crime that, if prosecuted, would have incarcerated us (and some, I'm afraid, probably with oysters but I digress). We ALL have committed traffic violations subjecting us to police stops. I live in a community that the local police will stage a blitz on a weekend where they will stop ANYONE they want under some pretextual traffic violation. Doesn't have to be speeding Anon 11:01. Failure to signal a lane change, wheels touching the divided line stripe, whatever. in one weekend they wrote 900 tickets in one short section of roadway. Remember the cop is looking to fulfill his "quota" or benchmark or work product, whatever you wan to call it. That is what it has become in our communities. That is not the community I want and will continue to do what I can to prevent it. Crooks walk down the street but I don't expect to go through a security gauntlet being stopped and interrogated by every uniform just because it can be an effective crime-fighting effort nor do I think that they should be allowed to "enter" my home, via drones, sensors, binocs, etc. whatever the SCOTUS may or may not say. Because I or a cop can legally do something doesn't mean we should do something. How would you like to stop at a road block every time you go out for a drive and have a dog run over your car searching for bombs whenever you are near the capitol? That is already considered an acceptable police tactic in Washington, DC. Sorry but that's not the America I was raised in.:~)

Todd said...

Was the American you were raised one in which anyone can drive recklessly and not be stopped by the police? Because that is why officers are out doing traffic enforcement. Let someone be killed by a speeder on your street and I bet you start shouting about "Where were the police?!"

I know many on this blog are incapable of giving the police any credit for trying to make the public safer but seriously? Police state? Too much Alex Jones going on here.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:37,

But it's not about traffic enforcement. That's the whole point. The issue isn't an officer working a school zone for speeders doing 50 on the cell phone; the blitzes I mentioned aren't about traffic safety. The safety violations, which police otherwise ignore on a daily basis, are used to justify their intrusion in the public's daily life. Speeding on a tollroad? All an officer has to do is drive the length of the road at 65 and ALL traffic will comply with the speed limit. Instead he'll park behind a bush and pursue a single speeder as a "deterrent" with the real objective of getting some type of arrest to please his sergeant. I've seen deputies ignore one violation en route to dinner but pick up a junk violation to fulfill month-end stats. More than happy to give the police credit (when due) but knowing officers and deputies from across the US for 40 years, I also have a better perspective than most for knowing when they don't deserve the credit. As Kant suggests, sometimes virtue is found in one's motivation and filling quotas is a poor excuse at motivating - besides being illegal in Texas. There's always a police justification to violate someone's civil rights based on a police definition of the "greater good"; I'm just not buying it. If one does accept that type of justification then one can just as easily accept it to justify the torturing that Chicago PD personnel initiated to clear some crimes. Same logic. Thanks but no thanks.

Hook Em Horns said...


Anonymous said...

It may be an effective tool if the stops are moved regularly to follow crime patterns (I doubt they do that though). Now if the speed limits are based on traffic flows by traffic engineers and not by localities trying to create speed traps (in CA they actually require this for the speed limit signs to mean anything).