In the last six years the number of traffic citations issued in Kansas City has dipped dramatically, raising questions from city leaders about public safety and declining revenue.
In fiscal 2010, the number of traffic tickets peaked at more than 315,200. But in fiscal 2016, that number was 189,712, according to municipal court records.
But based on the trend so far in the current fiscal year, which ends April 30, the 2017 number will be even lower.
When City Manager Troy Schulte presented the proposed 2017-2018 budget recently, the ticket drop was a focal point in a note to the City Council. The drop, he wrote, “is a troubling trend.”
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“I bring that up just because that’s a concern. If we are writing about less than half of the tickets we were five or six years ago, that’s people running red lights, that’s people speeding that is going to translate into fatalities,” Schulte said.
“This is my chance to put it in and let the council decide it. I think that is a wrong policy choice not to be writing tickets and not to be enforcing the public safety rules.”
Yet the number of fatalities haven’t increased. In 2010, the police department reported 68 vehicle fatalities. That number rose to 72 in 2012, but dropped to 48 two years later, police said.
In 2015 and again in 2016, officers responded to 68 traffic fatalities.
Police officials said the number of tickets is down in part because traffic officers have expanded their duties to homicides and other significant crime scenes.
Last year, a high number of homicides required many traffic officers to block off streets and areas at crime scenes, said Capt. Stacey Graves, a police spokeswoman.
Over the past two years during the 2016 election cycle, traffic officers have also assisted in many visits by politicians. They also responded to many protest rallies that required a strong police presence, Graves said.
“It should be noted, a law was recently passed prohibiting quotas on the number of tickets written by officers,” she said. “In addition, due to staffing and budget constraints, we were forced to eliminate numerous law enforcement positions, while balancing the needs of calls for service with other services.”
Schulte said that the reduction in traffic tickets means the city loses $4.5 million to $5 million each year.
“I said, ‘Why are we writing so fewer tickets?’ ” Schulte said. “(They said) ‘We are doing other things and we are trying to be a kinder, gentler police department.’ But I’m just concerned about long-term traffic safety.”
One big change in traffic citations since November 2013 is that the city halted its red-light camera program, after a Missouri appeals court ruling said red-light camera ordinances like Kansas City’s violated state law. Red-light camera citations peaked in August 2009 with more than 11,000 citations that month. The annual total dropped from more than 50,000 in 2010 to 29,930 in fiscal 2013, the last full year of enforcement.
Police enforcement of red-light violations has fluctuated since then, depending on other demands on officers’ time.
Some council members say they have seen other cities where stricter traffic enforcement in urban areas has had a negative impact.
“Ticket writing is a revenue source, but it also has a boomerang effect,” said Councilwoman Alissia Canady, who represents the Fifth District. “If you push too heavy on that, then where do they enforce it? We just have to make sure that officers are doing their jobs and if there is a shortfall in revenue in that area then we’ll need to recapture it in other areas where it is fair.”
Yet another council member shared Schulte’s concern about the decrease in citations.
“The total number of tickets has gone down to levels that we have not see in decades,” said council member Scott Wagner. “The total number is about half of what it was since 2011. ... Not to say that it is a significant portion of our budget, but it is certainly not an insignificant portion of our budget as well. There has been a squeeze as a result.”