Thursday, May 19, 2016

Austin traffic stop totals remain low

Looking at topline data from Austin PD's racial profiling reports, Austin PD officers presided over just more than half as many traffic stops in 2015 compared to 2010. Here are the numbers:

Austin traffic stops

2009: 226,401
2010: 232,848
2011: 179,882
2012: 115,384
2013: 133,703
2014: 144,906
2015: 120,056

Long-time readers know the decline in Texas traffic stops is an ongoing trend and, kind of like the crime drop, there aren't obvious explanations for why it's occurring. Here are the blow-by-blow explanations Austin PD has given in racial profiling reports for declining traffic stops since 2010:

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.


Tom said...

I have no idea of the relationship between the Austin Police Department and the city administration but in Houston in the 1980s, HPD manipulated traffic ticketing to mess with the city administration's budgeting.
At first, they ticketed everyone for just about everything. Municipal court revenue went way up. Then, after the city relied on that money for it's budget, you darn near had to beg a cop to ticket you. Municipal court revenue dropped like a stone and the administration had to find the money someplace.
Just an idea.

Anonymous said...

So Tom, did any of your clients actually have to beg for a ticket? HPD did not artificially increase the number of tickets issued for a long game approach, they merely followed orders. While not formally establishing a ticket quota, the common saying was for officers to run their calls for service and write a couple of tickets to keep their sergeants off their backs. If they wanted a patrol car that was not falling apart, wanted consideration for choice assignments, and wanted to be less likely to be assigned to some of the lousier details, they wrote a few tickets. Conversely, if an officer wrote a ton of tickets, he was not given any better consideration than the ones that wrote a few, their culture making heavy ticket writers pariahs in a way that remains to this day.

HPD union leaders did discourage officers from writing tickets a few times over the years to "send a message" to whichever mayor was causing them grief but those were very limited in terms of duration, typically a month. In more recent years, larger numbers of tickets were issued by specialty units in their truck inspection unit, traffic enforcement unit, and radar task force squads, no formal quota attached to such positions but an expectation that officers would "be productive" throughout their shifts. As these divisions were downsized, the drop in absolute number of tickets was immediately apparent, the groups all required to maintain extensive statistics for a growing number of reports. Recent city police chiefs also applied for fewer state and federal grants of overtime money, the strings attached to the grants demanding more and the amount of the grants reduced.

Then the last tier in the reduction of tickets tied not just to the fewer hours of specialists on the streets and lack of OT programs but the city moving court hours for most officers to their regular shifts, taking officers off the streets for hours at a time, and giving most officers fewer court days than before, some having court once a month as they were scheduled with dozens of cases in multiple courts which creates a disincentive for them. That might be a sergeant's unwillingness to allow an officer to attend court when calls are holding or the lack of court overtime requiring more extra details that demand an officer get off his assigned shift on time lest he be replaced, but if Tom is a regular attendee in municipal courts, he would know all of this since the officers and their supervisors are very vocal about it all.

Lest it be said that these are local factors and the trends are nationwide, keep in mind that large cities like Houston, Dallas, and Austin, do not exist in a vacuum. They communicate with each other regularly on methods to reduce costs and increase productivity from their limited manpower. Some things that Houston does were picked up by the others and vice versa over the years, those tasked with coming up with "new" ideas finding them in other departments or from their pursuit of higher education, HPD paying officers more to possess a college degree and requiring more education as an officer promotes. Ask the professors at the colleges these people attend (cough), and they can fill in any blanks as the city often hires such folks to do various studies, some suggesting very cozy relationships between students that are ranking members of HPD and their teachers.

Anonymous said...

While I agree there could be dozens of reasons for the decline: one (for 2015 figures and likely will continue in 2016) could be related to the Ferguson effect where officers are less willing to be proactive.

Anonymous said...

5:09, how do you explain that most of the decline happened pre-Ferguson?