Thursday, August 19, 2021

#SandraBland Act data used to identify Texas' most aggressive, small-town speed traps

Everybody hates speed traps. There are few things more annoying than driving along a state highway at 70 mph then having it ratchet down to 35 mph in a matter of a few hundred yards while a cop hides behind some billboard waiting to pounce.

Our pals Eric Dexheimer and St. John Barned-Smith at the Houston Chronicle have performed a great mitzvah by analyzing traffic stop data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act to identify the most prolific Texas speed traps

They found 21 small town agencies giving out more than 500 tickets per officer per year, making up up to 40% of municipal budgets. Anti-speed-trap laws passed by the Legislature, they found, are riddled with loopholes and seldom enforced.

Remarkably, "It doesn’t take many officers to affect a small city’s bottom line. Wells didn’t have an active police force in 2017 and collected less than $10,000 in fines. When it reactivated the department a year later, fine collections rose to $592,865." 

Another example: "In Riesel, Chief Danny Krumnow is adamant: When his two officers aren’t working other calls, they better be working traffic. State data show about 87 percent of motorists stopped last year drove away with a ticket. Municipal court fines last year made up more than half of the town’s general fund." Perhaps unsurprisingly:

Many of the state’s most aggressive traffic enforcers shared key characteristics: small towns situated on busy high-speed thoroughfares where the speed limit quickly drops from highway to local-street speeds — or even lower where school zones intersect roads. Virtually all of the departments had fewer than a dozen officers.

Your correspondent was quoted in the story, citing data first published in this blog post back in April. Because no MSM news outlet has covered it, most people even in law enforcement don't realize traffic enforcement in Texas has plummeted over the last decade, with the number of tickets given declining by more than half from 2008 to 2020. (Notably, non-traffic citations declined by a similar amount over the same period.)

The logic of traffic enforcement is that it improves safety by decreasing traffic violations. But Texas' experience doesn't reflect such a trend. Over the same period, traffic fatalities per mile driven in Texas fluctuated year by year, but ended up slightly lower overall and certainly evinced no large bump in fatalities.

As I asked at the time, "If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?"

The Houston Chronicle story provides at least a partial answer, particularly for small towns: Revenue. Indeed, "In Wells, in East Texas, the chief’s report at every city council meeting consists of a tally of traffic stops and tickets written." That's apparently the only "public safety" metric they care about.

I'd made a comment to the reporters I figured would be controversial: 

Others say departments whose officers can afford to spend so much time writing tickets signal a jurisdiction that is over-policed. “These are cops who don’t seem to have much police work to do,” said Henson

But the cops they interviewed corroborated that assessment:

In Gregory, a city of 2,000 across the bay from Corpus Christi whose officers are some of the state’s most prolific ticket-writers, Chief Tony Cano said there was some truth to that.

“Our number of call-outs is low, so I guess you could say they have more opportunity to work traffic,” he said. Although “officers are not encouraged to write tickets, that’s what they do. I’ve seen the numbers and I’m like, whoa, those are high.”

If only he were in a position to do something about it! (smdh)

Grits welcomes this new analysis, and not only because I dislike speed traps and cops who prioritize revenue generation over crime fighting. It also represents the first time data from Texas' Sandra Bland Act has been used in an analysis not focused on racial disparities.

The Sandra Bland data should be a gold mine for law-enforcement research providing extremely detailed information about what goes on at traffic stops at a granular level, allowing robust analyses that to my knowledge couldn't be performed in any other state. But no academic researchers have latched onto the dataset, and before now, MSM reporters who analyzed it were solely focused on racial disparities. That's an important aspect of the new data,  but it's by no means the only analysis that can be done with it. 

I'm hopeful this article opens the door to more such uses: You can't manage what you don't measure, the saying goes, but the flip side is measurements don't matter if managers don't use them to seek improvements. Identifying speed traps is only one of many useful analyses the Sandra Bland Act data newly allows. But it's a good start.

56 comments:

Gadfly said...

Having formerly been editor of the Marlin paper years ago, I can attest to the speed trap that is Riesel.

Gadfly said...

Per the full story, I can also attest to Rosebud, Bruceville-Eddy and Lott, all in or at the edge of Falls County!

Sidebar: When I was there, the Lott police chief bought a drug dog. Controversy there: Lady who owned the dog training company said it had not been trained for what the chief wanted. His plans? Rent-a-dog to all policing units in the county to sniff whenever they had a traffic stop. Problem? Two weeks after he bought the dog, the Supremes made their ruling that cops cannot unduly delay people at traffic stops without probable cause.

Anonymous said...

Why isn't the comptroller of public accounts enforcing Section 542.402(b), Transportation Code?

Why aren't some or all of the cities complying with Section 542.402(a), Transportation Code?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@3:31, your second question is answered by the first one. The answer to the first one IMO is that the GOP in Texas rn only cares about culture war BS and the state has gone essentially ungoverned, on day-to-day issues like this one, for many, many years now. They just don't GAF.

Gadfly said...

And, per Grits, Hegar is the closest thing to a semi-sane Republican holding statewide office.

OH, BREAKING: Texas Supremes will NOT uphold Strangeabbott's mask mandate ban against lower court TROs. https://wacotrib.com/ap/state/texas-supreme-court-declines-to-hold-up-mask-mandate-ban/article_e7314cc1-6751-5029-9e5c-546847f53df7.html#tracking-source=home-top-story

Unknown said...

I agree small town "speed traps" should not exist and expect the Transportation Code limitations to be respected or enforced.

However, I reside in a metropolitan area and observe to 2 significant safety related traffic enforcement issues.

At many signal lights, it has become routine, for a vehicle to enter the intersection AFTER the other light has turned green. This is several seconds after the yellow caution light has changed to red. safety would appear warranted.

Second, do not drive the speed limit on toll roads you will be "impeding traffic". Many toll roads drivers are at least 15 MPH over the posted speed limits.

Road rage incidents appear to be peaking in metropolitan areas.

Proper traffic enforcement is needed, but not to finance municipal or county governments.

Joel R. Lambright said...

This discussion has completely left out Corrigan. The police there actually exhibit annoyance at responding to calls that take away from traffic duty. In effect, they punish folks for calling them by unnecessarily escalating situations into an arrest. This conduct creates undue hesitancy among the local denizens who would seek legitimate aid.

Anonymous said...

Towns like Riesel, that annex or otherwise extend their city limit miles beyond the base of the town and, conduct aggressive traffic enforcement are certainly speed traps. I make that assertion with over 20yrs of LE experience of which about 6 was in traffic enforcement.

Danny killed at least one when his camera “malfunctioned” during traffic enforcement in 2004/2005 and should have been charged with a crime back then.

Lee said...

Why bother even having a police department when there is no need for policing?

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