After years of significant decline in traffic tickets, some city leaders want to consider increasing enforcement

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.

It has been years since the Lawrence Police Department had officers dedicated to issuing tickets for speeding and other traffic violations, and some city leaders — as well as some residents — say it’s time to reconsider that approach.

Concerns from residents came up during a recent survey conducted by the city that asked whether the speed limit on residential streets should be lower than the current limit of 30 mph. Though the survey did not specifically ask about traffic enforcement, many respondents who left an optional written comment said that enforcing the speed limits was just as important as changing the speed limit, if not more so.

Commissioner Stuart Boley said that the survey comments indicated that the perception is that the city has “failed with traffic enforcement.” He said he thinks the city needs to be responsive to the comments and other correspondence from residents by coming up with a plan to increase enforcement, which he said would also align with the commission’s strategic plan priority of supporting safe, healthy and welcoming neighborhoods.

“We serve the citizens of Lawrence, and if the citizens are telling us they aren’t happy with traffic enforcement, then we need to have a conversation about where that is in the priorities of the city,” Boley said.

City reports show that the number of citations issued by Lawrence police officers has declined dramatically in the past decade, and a separate comparison against other cities shows that in the past five years the number of Lawrence citations has gone from being roughly in line with the average issued per capita to significantly below it. Like Boley, Commissioners Lisa Larsen and Courtney Shipley expressed interest in additional traffic enforcement. Shipley said that the commission gets a lot of complaints on the topic, and she agreed high speeds are a problem.

“I think we do need to be responsive to the people that are concerned about traffic,” Shipley said. “I certainly sympathize with them. It’s very dangerous; people simply drive too fast.”

However, all three said the issue would need to be part of the city’s broader conversation about systemic racism and the role of police. The discussion about traffic enforcement comes as the city is in the process of conducting an outside study of the police department. The study will help inform potential changes in how the police department operates, including the possibility of shifting some duties away from police.

Drop in traffic and parking citations

The number of citations — multiple citations can be issued per ticket — has decreased dramatically in recent years.

Specifically, from 2010 to 2019, the number of traffic citations dropped from about 40,000 to 8,400 annually, or by about 80%, according to annual city reports. In that same time period, parking citations dropped from about 86,000 to 8,000 annually, or by about 90%.

A definite shift in enforcement occurred between 2010 and 2011, but it is not clear why. The police department ultimately discontinued its traffic enforcement unit in 2012, meaning no officers are currently dedicated specifically to issuing traffic citations.

From 2006 to 2010, the number of traffic citations was relatively steady, ranging from about 35,000 to 40,000 annually, according to annual city reports. From 2006 to 2010, parking citations were also relatively steady, ranging from about 86,000 to 99,000 annually. But all citations dropped dramatically between 2010 and 2011, when traffic citations went from about 40,000 to 13,000 annually and parking citations went from about 86,000 to 30,000 annually.

Other trends in the most recent report, which provides data from 2010 to 2019, don’t clearly point to reasons for the decline. The number of commissioned officers decreased slightly in the past decade, from 142 to 139, or by about 2%. The number of calls for service also decreased, from about 115,000 to 92,000, or by about 20%.

Larsen noted that taken together, traffic and parking citations have fallen from a total of about 126,000 in 2010 to about 16,000 in 2019, or a drop of about 87%. Larsen said she would like to see the city increase enforcement from the current levels.

“If you look at those numbers, they have significantly dropped,” Larsen said. “Together they are down about 87% compared to 2010, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.”

photo by: City of Lawrence

A City of Lawrence table lists operating indicators for various departments, including the police department, for the past 10 years.

Lawrence also now issues fewer traffic citations compared with other cities in the annual Benchmark Cities Survey, which is produced by staff of the Overland Park Police Department and compiles statistics from 29 U.S. cities. In 2019, Lawrence police issued 85 traffic citations per 1,000 residents compared with the average of 121. In 2015, the city was much closer to the average, with Lawrence police issuing 144 traffic citations per 1,000 residents compared with the average of 148.

The Journal-World has asked the police department about the reasons traffic and parking enforcement decreased between 2010 and 2011, but did not have an answer in time for this article. A spokesperson for the department said the topic needed to be researched and a response would be provided to the newspaper this week.

Changes in speed limits and enforcement

City staff told the commission that the proposed reduction in residential speed limits was in response to residents’ concerns about speeding in neighborhoods and that a plan would also be developed to increase traffic enforcement on residential streets.

The commission voted unanimously during its last meeting, with Mayor Jennifer Ananda absent, to approve an ordinance to reduce the speed limit on residential streets from 30 mph to 25 mph and to spend $220,000 to add new speed limit signs to residential streets, where signs typically are not posted currently. City staff recommended the change as part of a larger program that will also provide funding for traffic enforcement in neighborhoods, using traffic data to target problem areas. The program’s funding for enforcement won’t be available until next year, and a more detailed enforcement plan will be developed in the coming months.

The neighborhood enforcement program provides funding to purchase traffic monitoring equipment, and Larsen also said using that data to specifically identify and address problem areas in neighborhoods would be key. Larsen said she would be interested not only in enforcing speed limits in neighborhoods as part of that program, but also reinstating the traffic unit that was discontinued in 2012 to enforce traffic laws citywide.

However, Larsen said significant changes to policing should not occur until the study of the police department is complete and that a detailed enforcement plan for the neighborhood program should be the first step.

“I want to see from their side what they would propose and what kind of results they would expect from it,” Larsen said.

Boley agreed with Larsen that traffic enforcement problems go beyond the residential streets in the city’s neighborhoods, saying there are also issues on the collector and arterial streets that need to be addressed. He said collecting traffic data could help identify those problems and help the city get good results.

“Data really is our friend in this,” Boley said. “We need to have good data to be able to do this efficiently and effectively.”

The role of police

The city has put out a request for proposals for a comprehensive study of the police department to help inform potentially fundamental changes to police operations and priorities. The study is being pursued following local and national protests this year about police brutality and systemic racism, as well as Ananda’s subsequent calls for the city to consider various reforms, including proposals to move some funding and duties from police to social services.

Like Larsen, Boley and Shipley said that any significant changes to police operations needed to be informed by the study. Boley said that it was important to understand community priorities for allocating police resources.

Shipley said the commission also needed to understand why the city shifted away from enforcing traffic laws and what effects increased enforcement could have on the community. She noted that nationally, police stop people of color at disproportionate rates, and that decisions about increasing traffic enforcement must be part of the broader discussion about racism and the role of police.

“Some of the negative incidents that happen between the public and police are at traffic stops, some of which are completely unnecessary or based on bias,” Shipley said. “And so I think we’re going to have to think about that as part of this discussion.”

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