Police Banned From Enforcing Traffic Laws In Oklahoma Town Over Abuse Of Traffic Tickets For Money (Techdirt)
Tuesday January 28th, 2014
When police departments begin viewing themselves as revenue generating entities rather than law enforcement entities, it has a deleterious effect on the public, which is now viewed as potential income, rather than citizens. If the incentives become perverted, the department will as well. Everything from "booking fees" to forfeiture laws are prone to abuse, especially when the municipality becomes just as addicted to the cash flow.
An Oklahoma town with the population of 410 is in the news precisely because of this abuse. It seems the Oklahoma Dept. of Public Safety (DPS) isn't happy with the outsized cash haul a single police department has raked in over the past few years.
The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety announced Jan. 13 that Stringtown's police department no longer would be allowed to enforce traffic laws on state and federal highways that run through the town. Stringtown's reputation precedes it. A town that would barely register on a map is one of Oklahoma's most notorious speed traps. And this recent smackdown by the DPS is one of several.
After an investigation -- which had been requested by the state attorney general's office -- it was determined that Stringtown generated too much revenue through police-related activities.
State law prohibits cities and towns from generating more than half of their revenue through the collection of traffic fine payments.
According to the most recent audit of Stringtown's finances, the town generated $483,646 in fines during fiscal year 2013. That figure represents 76 percent of all Stringtown revenue.
The year before, traffic fines accounted for about the same amount of cash, or 73 percent of all revenue in fiscal year 2012.
In the mid-2000s, Stringtown police officers were stripped of their authority to write tickets along U.S. 69, causing the department to effectively shut down. Several other towns, including Big Cabin, also had action taken against them around the same time. It was investigated in the late 1990s, with the end result being an increase in the town's speed limit in order to better match the surrounding areas. A former Transportation Dept. spokesman also said the town's PD had been investigated in the 1980s for the same reason.
So, why can't the Stringtown PD be taught? Well, it's because the town itself has come to rely on the influx of income its police department provides. But rather than limit itself to a reasonable amount of money and living within the sort of means most towns with a population of 400 would, Stringtown began viewing law enforcement as a growth industry.
In the early 1980s, Stringtown had just three full-time city employees. After the end of the decade -- six years after Stringtown officials decided to process their own speeding tickets -- the town employed 20 full-time workers, six of them full-time police officers. The money from speeding tickets also built a new city hall and police station, something that's definitely a luxury for a town that would otherwise be fortunate to bankroll two full-time police officers.
The citizens of Stringtown seem to have bought into the city's delusion that it "needs" 20 employees and six cops.
OHP Captain Jeff Sewell says that's a problem for small towns, like Stringtown, with a population of 410. The town is mostly dead and yet, the PD's supporters somehow think a super-prolific speed trap is the proper way to revive it. Smith's worry about people "breaking in" to the one store still alive in town seems misplaced. If the PD's ticket revenue is to be believed, everyone was passing through Stringtown too quickly to be bothered to pull a smash and grab at what seems to be one of the only surviving businesses in the city limits.
"They have no other means for revenue. They had a store there, the store shut down. They had an eating place, it shut down. So they really don't have a place. Nobody puts any businesses up there," Sewell said.
But there is one corner store where employees are concerned about the lack of law enforcement.
"You know, people breaking in, you know, breaking stuff, stealing stuff," store employee Cindy Smith said.
Stringtown has been relying on its police force to balance the town's books for more than 30 years now, despite being forced to go "cold turkey" multiple times. The DPS may have cut off its supply again, but history has proven the town has run out of revenue generation ideas that don't involve a 6-person PD -- stationed in a town of 410 -- ticketing as many drivers as possible.