Police cannot point to a reason for significant drop in traffic enforcement; inconsistencies in data add to confusion

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from Aug. 4, 2020, a Lawrence Police Department patrol vehicle is pictured outside the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center.

Lawrence Police Department representatives say they do not know what caused a dramatic drop in the number of traffic citations issued by officers over the past decade.

Though several significant developments in policing did occur around the same time as the initial decline in the number of traffic citations issued, the only factor that police department representatives identified were likely changes in how the data is tabulated. There are inconsistencies in city reports, but traffic citations dropped about 60% from 2010 to 2019 according to one report and 80% during that same period according to another, and both reports show a significant initial drop from 2010 to 2011.

The Journal-World asked police department representatives if they were aware of any changes in direction from the city manager, the police chief or the City Commission to reduce traffic enforcement around that time. Referring to the previously reported 80% drop, Police Capt. Trent McKinley, crime analyst Capt. Adam Heffley and police spokesperson Lt. David Ernst all said that a change in how the numbers were calculated likely played a significant role and that they were not aware of any such direction or change in practice.

“It’s tough to remember any sort of change in direction or philosophy, some grand scale-down which would account for those numbers, that drastic reduction,” Ernst said, referring to the 80% drop. “I’m hoping that they second me on that; we’re just going off our recollections at this point, but there is nothing that we can go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the year that this happened.'”

However, several significant developments occurred in policing around the time of the citation drop-off. Those included a 2010 internal audit of the police department that stated priorities for the city should include an examination of how city management evaluates the department’s performance and how the department addresses complaints against police, as the Journal-World reported at the time. Longtime Police Chief Ron Olin retired in 2010 after serving in his position for 23 years. Then, under the direction of Tarik Khatib, initially interim chief and later chief, the police department sought inclusion in the Benchmark Cities survey for the first time in 2010, giving Lawrence the ability to compare its traffic enforcement, staffing levels and other public safety and crime data with other cities.

As the Journal-World recently reported, a few Lawrence city commissioners have expressed interest in increasing traffic enforcement, but they have not gotten a clear explanation for why it decreased in the first place. In the wake of protests over police killings and systemic racism, the city has also commissioned an outside study that will reevaluate police duties and potentially shift some of them away from police to social services. Especially given that context, Commissioner Courtney Shipley previously told the Journal-World that the commission needed to understand why the city shifted away from enforcing traffic laws and what effects increased enforcement could have on the community and especially on people of color.

Another development around the time of the initial decline in traffic enforcement in Lawrence was the creation of new laws against racial profiling and a public reporting system for racial profiling complaints, among other related changes. In 2011, changes to state law required Kansas law enforcement agencies to create specific policies against racial profiling, to hold annual bias training and to submit public reports on complaints against police. The law also established a process for creating community police review boards and investigating racial and other bias complaints.

Given the context of the discussion at the commission level, the Journal-World asked police representatives if the changes in state law regarding racial profiling or the heightened awareness about the issue of racial profiling were factors in the decrease in traffic enforcement. All said they were not aware of those changes being a factor.

“I don’t believe there was any change in how we approached that, writing citations and everything, due to a change like that,” Heffley said.

McKinley and Ernst agreed, with Ernst saying he was on patrol at the time and that “speaking off (his) memory” he did not recall any change of direction regarding their duties. McKinley, Ernst and Heffley all emphasized that they believed the data from the report recently discussed by the commission, which indicated the 80% drop, had some flaws due to inconsistencies in how the data is tabulated.

A table from the City of Lawrence annual financial report lists operating indicators for various departments, including the police department, from 2006 to 2015.

photo by: City of Lawrence

A table from the City of Lawrence annual financial report lists operating indicators for various departments, including the police department, from 2010 to 2019.

A table provided by Municipal Court Manager Vicki Stanwix shows traffic and other municipal charges from 2006 to 2019.

A table from the 2010 Benchmark Cities survey compares average citations per 1,000 citizens.

Specifically, according to the city’s annual financial reports, the number of officer-issued traffic citations dropped dramatically between 2010 and 2011, when traffic citations decreased from about 40,000 to 13,000 annually, or by about 67%. And over the past decade, from 2010 to 2019, that report indicates traffic citations further decreased to around 8,400, or by about 79%. Similar drastic drops also appeared to occur in parking enforcement.

But McKinley, Ernst and Heffley suggested the Journal-World contact the Municipal Court for a more detailed breakdown of traffic and parking offenses. A table that the Municipal Court provided the Journal-World appears to show that from 2006 to 2010, the city financial reports added together three categories of violations — traffic charges, parking charges and public offense charges — to arrive at the total number of officer-issued traffic violations in the financial report, but then stopped following that method in 2011. Similarly, the number of office-issued parking violations in the city’s annual financial reports aligns with the number of downtown meter citations in the Municipal Court table from 2006 to 2010, but does not after 2011.

However, the Municipal Court table continues to show a drop-off in the “traffic charges” category from 2010 to 2011, although less severe than the drop-off in officer-issued traffic violations in the financial report. Specifically, the number of “traffic charges” noted in the table decreased from about 20,600 in 2010 to 14,619 in 2011, or a drop of about 30%. In the last decade, from 2010 to 2019, traffic charges further decreased to about 8,500, or by about 60%. Budget documents also reflect the drop, with revenue from traffic fines and municipal court fees — which goes to the city’s general fund and not the police department directly — decreasing from about $3 million annually in 2010 to an estimated $1.7 million in 2019, or a drop of about 43%. Both reports also indicate that 2010 was not an outlier, as the number of traffic citations or charges issued from 2006 to 2010 was relatively steady.

Data submitted to the Benchmark Cities survey also appears to have possible inconsistencies, making it hard to judge whether the number of citations the city was issuing in 2010 was aligned or out of step with averages. Specifically, the data submitted to the survey in 2010 indicates the city issued only about 6,700 citations that year — much fewer than the approximately 40,000 in the city financial report or the approximately 20,600 in the Municipal Court table. Depending on which number is accurate, police were either issuing traffic citations at a rate significantly below the average number of citations issued per 1,000 residents or dramatically above it.

Representatives said there were also potential inconsistencies or changes in how that data was reported to Benchmark or how the survey defined certain categories. When asked if the police department had a general gauge of how its enforcement levels in 2010 compared with other cities, Heffley said that the department did not know where it sat in that regard.

After receiving the data from Municipal Court and observing that the drop-off in traffic enforcement between 2010 and 2011 and the downward trend thereafter was still present in both sets of data, albeit less severe in the Municipal Court data, the Journal-World followed up again with police representatives. Ernst said in an emailed response that the department is not able to provide a reason for the drop in the “traffic charges” column in the Municipal Court table from 2010 to 2011. Ernst again said the department could not recall a change in any departmental philosophy or traffic enforcement strategies that would have caused a decline.

Contact city reporter Rochelle Valverde

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