Drivers beware: Kansas City police are writing more traffic tickets

05/26/2014 7:39 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

If you’re planning on speeding through Kansas City anytime soon, you better slow down.

The Kansas City Police Department has renewed its focus on traffic enforcement, which means officers are writing more tickets. A lot more tickets.

In April alone, officers cited more than 6,000 speeders, or more than double the number cited the previous April. Overall, tickets for all April traffic violations increased nearly 50 percent from the previous year. And that doesn’t count the work of a new, fifth traffic enforcement squad.

The 10 additional traffic enforcement officers — six on motorcycles and four in cars — began writing tickets May 19. The squad should boost the unit’s productivity by 25 percent, said Maj. Jim Pruetting, who oversees the department’s traffic division. The unit writes most of the department’s tickets, though patrol officers write tickets, too.

Ticket numbers in January and February closely matched 2013 statistics, but the numbers grew in March and exploded in April after a few key moves by the department.

In late March, a deputy chief emphasized the need for patrol officers to be productive during their shifts, including by citing at least one moving violation each day. That may not sound like much, but with nearly 900 officers assigned to patrol the city, it adds up.

After the memo, Pruetting asked the deputy chief whether the department’s traffic enforcement officers, who now number 50, could be excluded from a requirement that they spend 20 percent of their time in the city’s designated hot spots, areas targeted under one of Police Chief Darryl Forté’s plans to fight violent crime. The deputy chief agreed, so they could spend all their time on traffic enforcement.

The timing of the increased enforcement strikes some people as suspicious, coming during budget negotiations with the city and just months after the courts knocked down the city’s red-light camera program, which generated more than 31,000 tickets annually.

“If it was about public safety, I could support that, but if it’s trying to make up the lost revenue, then I think there are better ways to do that,” said Matt Zender of Leawood, who got tagged with a $140 speeding ticket while passing through Kansas City in April.

City officials said they have been looking at the low number of traffic citations for years.

“There was a study done awhile back that showed the level of tickets being written was at the same level as 1947,” said Chris Hernandez, a city spokesman. “Obviously, we’re a much bigger city now. We started looking at how can we have an appropriate amount of traffic enforcement.”

As it stands, police explaining the sudden ticket increase are walking the tightrope between the city’s need for revenue and public safety. They say public safety and revenue took a hit with the loss of the red-light camera program.

“The enforcement needs to be done for traffic safety, but there has to be sufficient revenue in the general fund to pay for services expected by residents, which includes police but also public works, fire, municipal courts, animal control, et cetera,” said Maj. Eric Winebrenner, the Police Department’s liaison to the city manager’s office.

To be fair, the department in late 2009 disbanded a squad focused on highway safety to start a police officer security detail in Municipal Court and staff a red-light camera office where officers watched videos of violations and authorized citations.

The new emphasis on traffic enforcement appears likely to bring the department’s statistics back in line with ticket numbers from 2009 and prior years. Officers wrote 7,287 speeding tickets in April 2009 and more than 8,000 speeding tickets in April 2005.

The new push could surprise some motorists who had grown used to fewer officers writing tickets throughout the city, especially on the highways.

“I don’t have a problem with the public safety part,” said Michael Craig, who received a speeding ticket May 2 while trying to merge with traffic onto Ward Parkway. “But I feel like they’re hitting the easy targets. …Catching people going to work, going a few miles over the speed limit, that’s not really what I need police officers for.”

Master Police Officer Kevin Hulen, one of the new officers in the traffic enforcement unit, recently prepared to pull onto Interstate 435 when the driver in front of him ran a red light.

He had planned on driving to a dangerous stretch of roads near 43rd Street and Northern Avenue, the site of a fatal hit-and-run a few years ago, to write tickets. “But we’re going to start right here,” he said as he flicked on his lights and sirens on Bannister Road.

As Hulen radioed the car’s information to a police dispatcher, the driver prepared for the inevitable. He had his license and registration clutched in his hand, hanging out the driver’s side window when Hulen approached.

“We’re here to hold people accountable for what they do,” Hulen said afterward. “It’s nothing personal against that guy. He made a mistake. Unfortunately, mistakes like that can cause an accident or worse.”

Hulen said accidents happen because drivers violate traffic ordinances, so he has a duty to try to change drivers’ behavior before they cause wrecks. Reducing wrecks and improving traffic flow benefits everyone and can help keep insurance rates down, he said.

Hulen said he tries to give motorists the benefit of the doubt before writing tickets.

“I give you the first nine” mph over the speed limit, he said. “I start writing at 10.”

Ticket numbers this year show speeding as the most-cited violation. Failure to maintain insurance and driver’s license violations fill out the top three.

Although police make an argument for public safety, fatal traffic wrecks dropped nearly 20 percent last year despite lower ticket numbers. Still, 61 motorists died, with speed as the most cited contributing factor. Nearly 70 percent of the victims were not wearing seat belts, Pruetting said.

Officers wrote 27 percent more seat-belt and child-restraint tickets this April compared with last April but those tickets have limited effect, Pruetting said, because they cost drivers only $10 each.

Police officials said they would like to see the fines increased closer to the $50 allowed by ordinance. Court officials said judges recently increased the fine 50 percent to $15, which is higher than most surrounding cities.

“Yes, we will always have those who just don’t get it, but the majority of people will be deterred,” said Municipal Court Presiding Judge Joseph H. Locascio.

Although some residents may be skeptical of officers’ motives for writing more tickets, police spokesman Capt. Tye Grant said he didn’t know a single officer who would write a ticket to generate revenue.

“A byproduct of more officers doing this enforcement may be an increase in tickets, which may increase revenue, but that’s not the reason for doing it,” he said.

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

KC traffic citations compared

Violation

April 2013

April 2014

Driving under the influence

94

113

Speeding

2,824

6,011

Traffic signal violation

908

1,851

Failed to yield, stop sign

257

1,321

Seat belt, child restraint

1,222

1,670

Red-light camera

3,149

0

Failure to maintain insurance

1,341

2,631

Driver’s license violations

1,010

2,365

License violations from crashes

45

51

All other violations

4,270

6,411

Totals

15,120

22,424

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