More than two years after Kansas City patrol officers swapped their paper ticket books for electronic devices, one conclusion is inescapable.
They’re handing out a lot fewer tickets.
Citations have been persistently down more than 30 percent over the past two years since the e-ticketing system went live in August 2011. Citations now total about 175,000 tickets per year, compared with more than 260,000 tickets issued in 2010.
While motorists may rejoice that enforcement has eased, the decline in tickets and fines was not anticipated and is costing the cash-strapped city millions in revenue. It also shows the pitfalls of assuming that newer technology will make things more efficient.
“It was supposed to make this easier for the officers, and frankly, if we had paper tickets back, it’s much easier to write a paper ticket than the process we have now with e-ticketing,” said Maj. Jim Pruetting, traffic division commander.
Staffing reductions have contributed to the drop, especially with parking tickets. And part of the decline is due to the police department’s “kinder, gentler” philosophy of warnings, rather than zero-tolerance enforcement, Pruetting and others said.
But the biggest factor is a technology upgrade that brought a host of headaches.
The department has been struggling since August 2011 to work out all the technological bugs in a $6 million conversion involving the police and the municipal court. The agencies went paperless in what was believed to be the biggest digital transformation for any municipal court in the country.
Municipal court officials say it has generally worked well on their side, with a much better case-management system that eliminated a mountain of paper.
“Before, the clerks would have to pull every single ticket, bundle it up together,” said Court Administrator Megan Pfannenstiel. “Now they pull up the docket with a couple clicks of the mouse.”
The court was able to eliminate 28 full-time and temporary positions and has a better system of tracking warrants and unpaid tickets.
But for officers in the field, trying to issue a speeding or careless driving ticket can be difficult. Since they now relay data using a hand-held device or mobile car device with a cell signal from Sprint, connectivity remains a constant challenge.
“It’s a two-and-a-half year story,” said Maj. Greg Volker, the information systems commander who has been working on the project since its inception.
Officers frequently start to write a ticket but find they can’t get a cell connection, he said. It happens every day, at different times, and in different locations. He said the department has been working with Sprint since the beginning, and connectivity has gotten better over time, but it isn’t solved.
The department currently has 37 officers who concentrate on traffic enforcement, and many of them love the hand-held devices and would never want to go back to paper, Volker said. They know where some of the weak connection spots are, and work around that.
The bigger problem is with several hundred patrol officers, who also write tickets when they’re not answering calls. They may not be as comfortable with the devices, and when the cell connection is weak and the system freezes, they’re apt to just issue a warning rather than make the motorist wait.
“They don’t expect to be there for a half hour, getting a ticket,” Pruetting said.
Sprint spokeswoman Melinda Tiemeyer said the company is making significant progress with its 3G network and with its 4G LTE technology build out in Kansas City and will continue to work diligently on upgrades.
“We expect Kansas City to be largely completed by the end of the year,” she said. “Customers will continue to see improvement in coverage over time as we continue to roll out.”
Officers acknowledged that technology difficulties aren’t the only reasons for the big decline in traffic and parking tickets since 2010.
Other factors include:
While the department had about 50 traffic control officers until November 2009, it currently has 37 officers focusing on traffic control. In addition, city and police parking control crews have dwindled in recent years, writing thousands fewer parking tickets. As of Nov. 1, police have taken over all the city’s parking control duties and will be adding six new parking control officers by February to beef up downtown parking enforcement.
•Red light camera tickets.
Red light camera enforcement began in 2009 and averaged more than 4,000 tickets per month in 2010. More recently, that dwindled to between 2,000 and 3,000 tickets per month as people became more alert to the cameras. But now, an appeals court ruling has called the entire program into doubt and temporarily halted enforcement.
After Darryl Forte was appointed police chief in October 2011, he started assigning officers to “hot spot” violent crime areas, urging them to build relationships in those neighborhoods. Pruetting said his traffic control officers spend about 20 percent of their time there, and the focus is not on writing a lot of tickets.
“When you saturate an area like that, and you’re working on violent crime and building relationships in the community, obviously you’re not going to go in there writing a bunch of tickets,” he said.
While City Hall is aware of the drop in tickets, Pruetting said there’s been no pressure from city officials to pick up the pace, which he said would be unethical anyway.
Nevertheless, ticket volume does have financial implications. This year’s budget projected municipal court fines would bring in about $18 million, but the latest indicators are that actual collections will be $3 million to $4 million below that, and possibly more if the red light camera program is shut down for many months.
So far, the city is dealing with the revenue shortfall through a partial hiring freeze, City Manager Troy Schulte said. The shortfall has not required cuts at Municipal Court, but Schulte said the decline in court fines will “be a key component” of next year’s budget deliberations.
Pruetting said that with Sprint’s promised upgrades, the department is doing more equipment upgrades over the next 18 months that he hopes will improve the e-ticket functioning. It needs to happen, he said.
“We want to get it fixed so the officers have that capability,” he said.