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.