Updated: October 31, 2021 1:52:39 pm
Written by Mike McIntire and Michael H. Keller
Harold Brown’s contribution to the local treasury began as so many others have in Valley Brook, Oklahoma: A police officer saw that the light above his license plate was out.
“You pulled me over for that? Come on, man,” said Brown, a security guard headed home from work at 1:30 a.m. Expressing his annoyance was all it took. The officer yelled at Brown, ordered him out of the car and threw him to the pavement.
After a trip to jail that night in 2018, hands cuffed and blood running down his face, Brown eventually arrived at the crux of the matter: Valley Brook wanted $800 in fines and fees. It was a fraction of the roughly $1 million that the town of about 870 people collects each year from traffic cases.
A hidden scaffolding of financial incentives underpins the policing of motorists in the United States, encouraging some communities to essentially repurpose armed officers as revenue agents searching for infractions largely unrelated to public safety. As a result, driving is one of the most common daily routines during which people have been shot, shocked with a stun gun, beaten or arrested after minor offenses.
Some of those encounters — like those with Sandra Bland, Walter Scott and Philando Castile — are now notorious and contributed to a national upheaval over race and policing. The New York Times has identified more than 400 others from the past five years in which officers killed unarmed civilians who had not been under pursuit for violent crimes.
Fueling the culture of traffic stops is the federal government, which issues more than $600 million a year in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing. Although federal officials say they do not impose quotas, at least 20 states have evaluated police performance on the number of traffic stops per hour, which critics say contributes to overpolicing and erosion of public trust, particularly among members of certain racial groups.
Many municipalities across the country rely heavily on ticket revenue and court fees to pay for government services, and some maintain outsize police departments to help generate that money, according to a review of hundreds of municipal audit reports, town budgets, court files and state highway records.
This is, for the most part, not a big-city phenomenon. While Chicago stands out as a large city with a history of collecting millions from motorists, the towns that depend most on such revenue have fewer than 30,000 people. More than 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10% of their revenue, enough to pay for an entire police force in some small communities, an analysis of census data shows.
To show how a dependence on ticket revenue can shape traffic enforcement, the Times examined the practices of three states — Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia — where police traffic stops have set off controversy. What emerges is a tangle of conflicts and contradictions that are often unacknowledged or explained away.
The Money Machine
Newburgh Heights, a frayed industrial village of about a half-square-mile with 2,000 residents just south of Cleveland, doggedly monitors traffic on the short stretch of Interstate 77 that passes through.
Its 21 police officers cruise around looking for vehicles to pull over, and aim speed cameras from the Harvard Avenue overpass or from a folding chair beside the highway.
All told, revenue from traffic citations, which typically accounts for more than half the town’s budget, totaled $3 million in 2019. Some of that money is processed through the Newburgh Heights Mayor’s Court, one of 286 anachronistic judicial offices that survive, mostly in small towns, across Ohio.
A 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio found that 1 in 6 traffic tickets in the state were issued in towns with mayor’s courts, which the ACLU called a “shadowy and unaccountable quasi-judicial system that wrings revenue from drivers.”
The fixation on revenue has made mayor’s courts an enduring source of controversy. Years of complaints about tiny Linndale, population 160, raking in as much as $1 million annually from speed traps led to a ban on mayor’s courts in towns of under 200 residents.
Trevor Elkins, the mayor of Newburgh Heights, said his town’s increasing use of cameras has reduced the need for traffic stops, though the latter remain disproportionately high, according to state data.
Publicly, mayors insist their courts are not used to generate money, yet privately that is often the focus of their concerns. The mayor’s court in Bratenahl, a wealthy suburb on Lake Erie, typically has more than twice as many traffic cases each year as there are residents in town, according to state records.
Bratenahl, with a population of 1,200 that is 82% white, deploys its 18 officers to patrol a strip of Interstate 90 that skirts the edge of town east of Cleveland, where half the residents are Black. As a result, many days, the crowd in Bratenahl mayor’s court is mostly Black.
Though the interstate is literally walled off from much of the town, Mayor John Licastro portrayed traffic enforcement as a civic obligation and said officers were simply following the law. “We don’t choose who drives the Shoreway,” he said.
Elkins offered a similar defense of Newburgh Heights, where Black residents account for about 22% of the population yet often make up a majority at his mayor’s court. A Times analysis of more than 4,000 traffic citations there found that 76% of license and insurance violations, and 63% of speeding cases involved Black motorists.
Public Safety and Profiteering
On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma State Trooper Charles J. Hanger made one of the most famous of roadway stops.
Heading north on I-35, Hanger spotted a 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis with no license plate. Its driver was Timothy McVeigh who, about 90 minutes earlier, had detonated a truck full of explosives outside the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people in what then was the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
The McVeigh case holds mythic status among police officers, for whom it is a go-to rejoinder to concerns that many traffic stops are pretexts for raising revenue or searching, without cause, for evidence of other crimes. But researchers who study traffic enforcement say that for every occasional lucky break, hundreds of innocent motorists are subjected to needless scrutiny, expense and potential danger.
In the 2019 fiscal year, Valley Brook, Oklahoma, collected more than $100,000 from tickets for “defective equipment” like Brown’s burned-out tag light, with citations issued, on average, 3 out of every 4 days.
A majority of stops in this town of less than a half-square-mile occur along a four-lane road. Valley Brook collects 72% of its revenues from fines, the highest in the state.
Chief Michael A. Stamp defended the police department’s practices. Because their jurisdiction covers only one block along the main roadway, he said, officers look for broken taillights or “wide turns” to catch more serious infractions.
“I put officers out on the street every single night for the sole purpose of drug and alcohol enforcement, because it’s such a big problem that we have here,” Stamp said. He conceded the town’s dependence on traffic tickets, but added, “I will stand by the fact that what we are doing out here also saves lives.”
By some measures, Nicholas Bowser, 38, is exactly the kind of driver the chief says he wants to take off the road. Rather than pulling over around midnight July 2, he led officers on a chase from Valley Brook to his home about a mile away. Upon his surrender, the police found a handgun at his feet and discovered his blood alcohol content exceeded the legal limit.
That might have been enough to keep Bowser from driving for a while, or have a court-ordered breathalyzer installed in his truck. But the next day, he retrieved his truck from the impound. All he had to do was pay $2,185.11 in estimated fines and fees to Valley Brook.
Local police had charged him with “negligent driving” and “public intoxication” — lesser crimes than driving drunk, which must be transferred to district court. Some lawyers say that a 2016 law designed to prevent repeat offenders’ drunken-driving records from staying hidden in local court systems has incentivized towns to downgrade offenses, keeping the ticket — and the revenue.
In an interview, Bowser said, “I should have gotten a DUI.” This summer, after he requested a jury trial, Valley Brook dropped the charges against him and refunded about $2,000.
After details emerged of the case involving Brown, those charges too were dismissed, the officer was disciplined and Stamp called to apologize. Still, Brown sued the town, which he asserts has turned traffic enforcement into a ruthless profit-making enterprise.
“They are lawless,” he said.
A Culture of Quotas
When Windsor, Virginia, police threatened and pepper-sprayed a Black and Latino Army lieutenant, Caron Nazario, last December over a license plate infraction, the mistreatment by police made national headlines in April. Officials fired one of the officers involved and called the case an aberration. But in many ways, the traffic stop was routine.
Windsor is one of nearly 100 Virginia communities to receive federal grants encouraging tickets. The annual grants, awarded by state authorities, ranged last year from $900 to the village of Exmore for nabbing seat belt scofflaws to $1 million to Fairfax County for drunken-driving enforcement. Windsor got $15,750 to target speeders.
There is little doubt that these grants affect the economics, and frequency, of traffic stops.
Jessica Cowardin, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said the number of citations “is just one of many things we look at to evaluate how effective a grant is.” She added, “We do not require nor encourage grant-funded police departments to issue a prescribed number of traffic citations.”
But a review of state grant applications found that the number of traffic stops is a common performance measure.
For all the billions spent to promote ticket-writing by police, there is little evidence that it has helped achieve the grants’ primary goal: reducing fatal car crashes.
In 2019, there were 33,244 fatal crashes nationwide, up from 30,296 in 2010. Traffic safety experts say targeted enforcement works, but improvements in automobile technology and highway engineering account for much of the progress since the 1970s and ’80s, when annual fatal crashes routinely exceeded 40,000.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, some municipalities and states are rethinking their approach to traffic stops. Berkeley, California, has proposed shifting away from police enforcement, in favor of an unarmed civilian corps. Virginia lawmakers prohibited stops initiated because of defective taillights, tinted windows and loud exhaust.
Fallout from the Nazario case moved Windsor to pursue ways to slow traffic “while reducing police and citizen contacts,” including electronic signs and rumble strips. The Windsor police also ended grant-funded patrols, saying it was “in the best interest of our agency and our community.”
When the town council presented a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it projected revenue increases from all major sources except one: traffic fines.
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