We’ve all heard the stories about small towns kept financially afloat through the use of traffic tickets. By using deceptive traffic signs, corruptly timed stoplights, radar traps, and a variety of other unethical practices, some communities earn a well-deserved reputation for corruption. Often, that corruption only fills the city’s coffers, but sometimes, it enriches not only the corrupt city officials that mandate it, but the police that make it possible. It appears, however, that in one Tennessee town, there used to be honest police officers, as Reason.com reports:
Ridgetop Police Chief Bryan Morris submitted his resignation on Friday. The Tennessee city is now without a police force and it’s all due to a disagreement over illegal ticket quotas.
In January, FOX 17 released explosive reports that implicated Ridgetop Mayor Tony Reasoner and Vice Mayor McCaw Johnson in a scheme to generate revenue for the city of just over 2,000 by directing the police department as a whole to write a minimum of 210 tickets each month. The officers pushed back and finally took it upon themselves to secretly record Reasoner and Johnson. The recordings were then handed over to FOX 17.
In the recordings, Reasoner and Johnson talk about repayments to the city after the police payroll was $54,000 higher than the revenue from citations. The pair hoped that if the police wrote more tickets, it would generate new revenue that would fund the entire police payroll.
Section 39-16-516 of the Tennessee criminal code bars politicians and state agencies from disciplining a police officer solely based on the officer’s ability to meet a ticket quota. The Ridgetop officers have argued that Reasoner and Johnson violated this law by demanding to see bi-weekly ticket reports from each officer. In one of the recordings, Johnson even attempted to leverage a raise for two officers and the rehire of another to encourage officers to meet the quota.
Most police agencies, certain the ethical ones, do not engage in ticket quotas. That does not mean, however, that officers are not expected to write tickets. Think for a moment, gentle readers, about how many traffic violations you see on a drive to the grocery store or other errand. If a police shift supervisor notices one of his officers isn’t writing any tickets, he’s going to legitimately wonder what that officer is doing out there other than driving around aimlessly. Any competent police officer, if he’s not swamped with calls, can easily write several tickets per shift, and not chickenshit tickets either.
When asked by FOX 17 if he knew that ticket quotas were illegal, Reasoner replied, ‘Yes, we do. We know.’ McCaw, after denying that he demanded the quota, added that he was merely interested in ‘revenue stream.’
Yeah. Suuuure they do. The city tried to disband the police department in June, but settled for firing everyone but the chief, who recently resigned. Traffic enforcement, if done properly, actually reduces accidents and enhances public safety. Traffic stops late at night often lead to the discovery of much more serious crimes, as criminals are out late at night plying their trade, and they usually pay as little attention to traffic laws as they do to law prohibiting theft, burglary, rape, and other felonies. Any non D/S/C city wants its police to be out there, aggressively pursuing criminals, and writing tickets that will actually do some good.
When ticket writing is done for a revenue stream, however, the system is entirely corrupted. This is why many states are outlawing red light cameras, which certainly generate a great deal of revenue, but are a serious constitutional problem, since no officer is actually observing the violation and positively identifying the violator. They put people in the position of having to prove themselves innocent because all the state can prove is someone driving a car with a specific license plate registered to a specific person ran a red light. Anyone fighting the ticket is forced into either perjury or self-incrimination if they contest the ticket. That’s why these tickets raise such bundles of cash. But red light cameras tend to cause more accidents as people end up slamming on their brakes at the last second to avoid a ticket.
“Chickenshit tickets” are by definition tickets issued to raise revenue. They’re always unethical regardless of the intent of the officer. Some officers will issue radar tickets for people traveling as little as two or three miles per hour over the posted limit. Radar units have an error factor of +- 1 MPH at best, and vehicle speedometers aren’t calibrated. Someone driving at an indicated 35 MPH could easily be doing anything between 31 and 38 MPH, doing their best to obey the law. And of course, this does not factor in the need to keep up with the flow of traffic. Driving too slowly is also a major factor in accidents. It’s also ridiculously easy to speed up a bit with a moment’s inattention. The police do it all the time. That’s why no officer should ever write such tickets. They do nothing for public safety, but much to cause disrespect for the police and the law.
During my police days, I was a prolific ticket writer, writing more in a year than our entire traffic division, but that was because I wrote only really obvious, dangerous violations. I wouldn’t so much as stop a speeder unless they were traveling at least 13 MPH over the limit, such as 38 in a 25 zone. That pretty much eliminated any possibility of error on my part, and of a moment’s inattention on theirs. I usually wrote those tickets down to the lowest cost category, which took much of the pain out of the process and helped remind people to drive more safely. After every speeding ticket I checked the calibration of the radar unit. If it didn’t check out, I called the violator and canceled the ticket. That helped build respect for the law and the police. As a result, I had a near 100% conviction record.
I virtually always worked the midnight shift too, and legitimate traffic stops often led to the discovery of felonies. A taillight broken or burned out might lead to a backseat full of recently stolen property. An illegal turn or stop light run might lead to a substantial drug arrest. And of course, traffic violations of all kinds were committed by drunk drivers.
The solution to this sort of corruption is for citizens to vote those responsible out of office, and prior to the election, make life uncomfortable for them. I do not for a moment suggest D/S/C tactics of harassing people at home or in restaurants, and certainly don’t condone violence of any kind, but this kind of sleazy behavior often wilts when exposed to sunlight through telling the truth person to person, in the media, on social media, and otherwise. The same is true of corrupt, or overly aggressive police officers. Begin by going to their shift supervisor, division commander, and then the head of the agency–Chief of Police or Sheriff. If that doesn’t work, go higher. In most places, fortunately, the police are sensitive about bad publicity.
It’s a shame Ridgetop lost their last honest police officer, but that too is what it sometimes takes. We have the government, and the police, we deserve.