THE BLOG
04/16/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Traffic Ticket Racket and Its Erosive Effect on Community Policing

2014-04-16-Trafficcops.jpg

I fought the law and the law didn't show up in traffic court the other day, so my case was summarily dismissed. Oh, happy day... sort of.

After paying the $367 fine up front, taking two days out of my life to show up, respectively, for my initial appearance then, months later, the court date, my case was dismissed because, as the judge announced from the bench, "the officer involved either has no recollection of the events or was unable to attend." I was then told I could expect my $367 back in eight weeks time and that was it -- debacle over. I was shuffled from the court house and left standing in the glaring sun of a now much brighter day and thought to myself: what a racket.

I am not generally a rabble-rouser. I believe in the law, in following (most) rules, showing respect for authority, being a responsible citizen, and practicing good manners. This has not always been easy, particularly during a trying era of my life when I came head-to-head with a darker side of police authority than I'd been previously aware ("Loudly Against the Language of Racism"). But once distanced from that era, and living a life that made me less a target in the eyes of police (read the piece; you'll get the reference), I reverted back to my more neutral/positive stance about law enforcement in general. I took note of the various successes in community policing efforts around the country, taught my son the importance of respecting authority (with hopes he retains that wisdom), and when I got my previous traffic ticket about 15 years ago (a "no left turn during certain hours" violation), I 'fessed to my infraction, paid my dues, and humbly did my time in traffic school. A good citizen.

Then came this ticket. Frankly, it was one of those events that give police a bad name: a chicken shit speed trap that's designed to raise money for the city and has little to do with actually protecting and serving its citizens or keeping its streets safe. I'm omitting the city's name -- less important than the point (it's in Los Angeles County) -- though I have a feeling this sort of civic pettiness goes on everywhere.

The speed trap? A cadre of motorcycle cops sits perched at the bottom of a wide and widely traveled street in this anonymous town, right where the speed limit abruptly drops from 45 to 35 mph, and just as drivers cross that boundary, and before they can fully reduce their speed by 10 miles (something only safely done with gradual braking), the police swoop down like leering crows, one by one, to pick off as many drivers as they can. At times I've driven by this trap and it looked like a convention was in town, so many cops and drivers off to the side of the road! But, of course, they're not there every day and you forget. So on the day of my vehicular ado, I was simply driving safely with the flow of traffic -- a few miles over the presumed 45 mph posted speed limit -- and it was only as we, the "flow of traffic" caravan, came into the speed change zone that I saw the convention in blue and, BAM, it was too late.

The young cop who pulled me over swaggered up to my car like a character from Reno 911 and made it immediately clear how this was going to go. Unwilling to entertain any discussion of the entrapping nature of the... trap (of course, being a wise woman with a grasp of "trigger words" I did not actually use the words "entrapment" or "speed trap"), he proceeded to whip out his ticket book whilst giving me an unnecessary lecture on safe driving (I'm a very safe driver; just ask my friends!). When I asked (pleaded) if he could just issue a warning ticket, hoping to tap into his inner good cop, the conversation when something like this:

Police (sneering): Right. And what do you think my captain would do if I showed up without issuing you a ticket?

Me (hopefully): Um...maybe think you're a considerate cop?

Police: Naw, you need to take responsibility for your criminal actions.

Me (edge creeping into my voice): Criminal actions!?

Given that it was the end of the month, as well as the comment about his captain's expectations, I suspect there was a quota issue at play, but adding in the hyperbole of "criminal actions," there was no doubt I was going down and down I went, to the tune of $367. The mitigating circumstances of this particular ticket -- as opposed to the clear-cut nature of the last -- convinced me before I pulled away from the curb, watching in the rearview mirror as my guy and his buddies-in-blue ambushed other unsuspecting drivers, that I was going to fight this one. The code he cited makes no mention of speed limit (only the safety of driving conditions) and since I could prove my verifiable compliance with the listed safety items (weather, visibility, condition of road, etc.), I felt confident of my case but, damn, it was time-consuming! And it was during the months involved that I came to hear from so many others about their similar, often petty, sometimes wholly unnecessary, and always very expensive run-ins with traffic cops.

It came up in conversations -- in stores, at the hair place, while waiting in line -- the countless examples of average citizens pulled over for traffic violations that seemed picayune and punitive, particularly in comparison to the unlimited supply of authentically bad drivers whipping around at 90 mph, road-raging through lane changes, texting madly while driving through intersections, all with not a cop to be found. The types of violations I heard about were, instead, decidedly minor ones: the college student ticketed for not holding her stop long enough; the mother who pulled from a freeway exit into the wrong lane because of a stalled car in front of her; the young hairdresser who was badgered and bullied by cops after being stopped at the same speed trap I was and having an unpaid parking ticket (they actually impounded her car). In fact, after posting about my experience on social media, I heard from more people than will likely read this article, with the winning anecdote coming from a woman who got a ticket for a broken taillight despite the fact that the cop could see her car had just been seriously vandalized (smashed windshield, broken locks, side window gone). She put months into fighting the ticket and her cop didn't show up either. Small, time-wasting victories, these.

Whether or not lower income people are disproportionately impacted by traffic tickets (as was suggested to me by some), the way the system is rigged is punitive to everyone. You are given a ticket and expected to show up to sign in and plead (this can take hours), but even if you plead "not guilty" and are prepared to fight your case in court (which no one does unless they authentically believe they have good case), you are obligated to pay the fine upfront, which clearly flies in the face of "not guilty" logic. Then that money sits in the city's coffers for what could be up to a year with postponements, giving them a hefty interest income while you're out your hard-earned dollars. To add insult to injury, even if you win or your case is dismissed they give themselves eight more weeks of interest income before refunding your fine. Imagine the millions... it's a racket, I tell ya, a racket!

When I grumbled about this to the teller taking my money, he just shrugged and said, "It's the law. You don't like it, change the law." Good idea. Because when a college student taking care of her grandmother and working a job while she goes to nursing school has to ask for community service because she simply can't afford to pay upfront the ridiculous cost of a ticket to which she's pleading not guilty, there is something seriously cold-blooded about the system.

But beyond the money angle, the, perhaps, bigger, more consequential issue is how all this petty policing is impacting the community's view of their law enforcement personnel. At a time when mayors and police chiefs are giving press conferences to announce larger, hopefully more compassionate police forces out there connecting and collaborating with neighborhoods and local citizens to reduce crime and raise affinity between the two factions, how does a cabal of snarky young cops on motorcycles ticketing drivers at a speed change point create good will? How does bullying and terrorizing a scared young girl with an outstanding parking ticket engender positive perspective? How does picking off average drivers making minor mistakes for mitigating reasons inspire a sense of rapport with local police? The fact is, it doesn't.

What it does do is create a metastasizing pool of largely unspoken resentment towards those we should respect and look to for protection and service. It makes citizens angry and mistrusting of the police. It creates a climate in which average, every day people (i.e., not criminals) begin to view law enforcement as an arbitrary, sometimes illogical, too often punitive force that appears to care little about the impact they have on good people leading good lives despite the occasional lapse in traffic protocol.

As I sat in the courtroom prior to the dismissal of my case, I took note of the three officers there to defend their tickets. While the beleaguered ticketed, people who'd taken time off work, time from families, just time, sat tense and silent, the three in blue were off to the side laughing, giggling, heads together chattering about one thing or another. I was struck by the disparity of tone. I would have had much more respect for them if they'd sat waiting as quietly and courteously as we all were.

There are two things that need attention here: one; the laws regarding holding the money of ticketed citizens need to be amended (no one pleading "not guilty" and going to court should have to pay the fine upfront OR post-win/dismissal, money should be refunded immediately), and, two; the the traffic divisions of police departments, likely everywhere, need in-service programs to teach the following:

1. Sensitivity training in how to deal with those they choose to stop and ticket: The swaggering, bullying tactics too often employed are deeply counterproductive. The cop sets the tone: he's respectful, the driver will generally remain respectful.
2. Better practices regarding how, why and when to give tickets: Traps set at speed reduction points are just obnoxious and transparently petty.
3. A clear reason and purpose to actually give a ticket: It was only last December that the Los Angeles Police Department settled traffic ticket quota lawsuits for $6 million. Clearly citizens (whose taxes paid that settlement) are paying attention.

I know - most people know - that being a cop anywhere, particularly in a big city, is a profoundly difficult and dangerous job, one that demands tremendous courage and taxes the emotional stamina, faith, and compassion of almost anyone doing the job. I've known several cops personally and the erosion of good will they come to after years of dealing with the very worst of humanity is real and very understandable. But still...

There is also the completely avoidable erosion of good will toward cops. Most people driving cars on the streets of any city or town are simply decent folk living their lives: trying to get to work, pick up their kids from school, take their girl to a movie; bring groceries home from the store. They're not "criminals" and they're not out to consciously break a law. If you are going to stop them, dear traffic cop, for being a few miles over the speed limit, for not holding their stop long enough, or making some other move you think was misguided, do so like a thinking, feeling professional. Don't bully them, don't terrify them, don't be compelled by quotas, and don't issue the ticket if ultimately you feel a compassionate urge not to. While you can't do much about the ridiculous money racket end of this industry, you can change the way in which the process is conducted. Your tone, actions, and good sense can go a long way toward building and sustaining good will in the community, rather than eroding it. This is a form of community policing that should be just as encouraged and applauded by mayors and police chiefs as any other kind. In fact, they might be surprised to discover just how much the traffic division impacts the attitudes of citizens toward their police.

Traffic cops image: Serge Melki @ Wikimedia Commons

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Follow Lorraine Devon Wilke on Facebook, Twitter, and Rock+Paper+Music. Details and links to her other work at www.lorrainedevonwilke.com.