Last month, Mission Police Chief John Simmons noticed a guy driving next to him wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was texting.
By KAREN DILLON
The Kansas City Star
Simmons quickly pulled over the driver and ticketed him.
Welcome to Mission, the Kansas City area’s king of traffic enforcement, where every cop on the force writes tickets, adding up to more citations in a year than many suburbs three times its size, according to a review conducted by The Star.
It is rare to drive through the town on its 1½-mile main drag, Johnson Drive, and not see an officer sitting in a black-and-white SUV in a parking lot or on a side street, zeroing in on drivers.
Often you will be treated to red lights and sirens and get to see an officer pull over a wrongdoer for any number of reasons, including a burned out license-plate light or headlight, speeding or no seat belt.
That’s because police write so many tickets in this 2.7-square-mile town, they averaged two per hour last year.
“It’s just relentless,” said Dave Miller, the owner of Werner’s Deli on Johnson Drive, who fears his business is being harmed by overzealous enforcement. “They’ve pulled over my employees, my customers.”
But Chief Simmons and some city officials say it is all about obeying the law, preventing accidents and keeping people safe.
“Somebody once asked me if our officers have a quota they have to meet regarding tickets,” Simmons said. “And I told them no, they can write as many as they like.
“I don’t really care about the numbers. It is absolutely about the safety.”
Critics of the aggressive enforcement won’t find a lot of sympathy from some Mission City Council members, including Will Vandenberg.
“Anybody who gets a ticket complains,” Vandenberg said. “We have 50,000 vehicles drive through Mission every day. If somebody runs a red light, they should get a ticket.”
Councilman Lawrence Andre said there is no push for Mission to be the area’s top ticketer.
“It is a fact: We are generating more revenue,” he said. “I also will adamantly express that there is no policy in this city to go generate revenue.”
While some Mission residents believe there is no question that revenue indeed is driving the number of tickets issued, they also say the effects of the enforcement could have a lasting impact on the city’s reputation and will push customers from main street shops.
“Every time the average citizen gets stopped by the police, they remember that for the rest of their lives,” said Bill Nichols, a resident and frequent critic of city government. “The merchants in Mission have enough problems.”
Ten years ago, Randal Wilson was Mission’s new police chief, fresh from the Wichita area. While there, he read a news report that said Mission had the second-highest number of accidents per capita in Kansas.
The fix, Wilson decided, was a crackdown on errant drivers.
“Obviously, we needed to do something to get people to slow down and start paying attention,” Wilson said in an interview last week.
To do that, police needed to be highly visible and write more tickets. Wilson started the city’s first full-time traffic unit, and the two officers had a goal to issue at least 20 tickets or warnings each day, according to a newspaper article at the time.
Wilson, who retired a few years ago and lives in western Shawnee, said the enforcement served two purposes. First, it would reduce traffic accidents. And it did. In the first year, 2003, police issued 5,662 traffic tickets, up 39 percent from the previous year. And accidents were down 40 percent.
“The feedback I got was ‘No we don’t like it, but when we hit Mission city limits, we do know we have to slow down,’” Wilson said. “Honestly that was what we were trying to do, was to get people to understand that at least in our city you have to slow down.
But the police presence also sends a message to criminal types to stay out of Mission, he said.
“If bad guys come to town, you had a presence,” he said. “You are letting people know if you need us we are going to be there quickly.”
Today, Mission police can be seen ticketing along Johnson Drive, Lamar Avenue and on the Lamar bridge over Interstate 35. All those locations and others are found on the online National Speed Trap Exchange and on Trapster, a smartphone app that identifies alleged speed traps.
Simmons, who became Mission’s police chief in 2011, did away with the traffic unit. Now all officers write tickets –– 16,490 last year, which is triple the number issued in 2003. The average over the last three years is about 16,000.
Simmons said he has tried to relax what seemed to him a strict policy on enforcement –– writing citations instead of warning tickets. He said there are other ways to deal with a burned-out license plate light, for example, than issuing a citation.
Mayor Laura McConwell said the number of tickets issued is driven purely by a desire for safety and that accident rates have fallen. Accident rates spiked at one point when enforcement was loosened, she said.
“It was a desire not to be first in accidents” that is behind the ticket-writing, she said. “We are working at saving people.”
More tickets than residents
Still, only police in Mission — which has a population of 9,500 — write more tickets than the city has residents, The Star found in its review of area suburbs.
For example, police in Merriam, population 11,180, wrote only 7,554 tickets in 2012. In Lenexa, population 48,972, police wrote 11,039. In Lee’s Summit, population 91,668, police wrote 10,958.
It is rare for a city to generate more tickets than the number of residents, said a spokesman for the National Motorist Association, which has fought several high-profile driving issues, such as the 55-mph national maximum speed limit, which Congress eventually repealed.
“The fact that (Mission police) are generating more tickets than there are people in the town is pretty remarkable,” said John Bowman, the association’s communications director. “We don’t see this very often. It sounds pretty predatory to us.”
Bob Hartman, who owns Hartman Hardware on Johnson Drive, said he sees the police every day near his store, pulling motorists over for “silly things like your license plate light is out.”
“Instead of just telling you your license plate light is out, and, ‘Thanks I wasn’t aware of that,’ but no, it’s a fine,” Hartman said.
He called the rate of tickets ridiculous for a city the size of Mission.
“You can ask anybody who lives down on Lamar or close to Lamar,” Hartman said. “All hours of the night, you hear sirens and people being pulled over.”
To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.