The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops

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The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops

Busted taillights, missing plates, tinted windows: Across the U.S., ticket revenue funds towns — and the police responsible for finding violations.

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By Mike McIntire and Michael H. Keller

Published Oct. 31, 2021Updated Nov. 1, 2021, 10:20 a.m. ET

Harold Brown’s contribution to the local treasury began as so many others have in Valley Brook, Okla.: A police officer saw that the light above his license plate was out.

“You pulled me over for that? Come on, man,” said Mr. Brown, a security guard headed home from work at 1:30 a.m. Expressing his annoyance was all it took. The officer yelled at Mr. 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 onto his uniform, Mr. 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 870people collects each year from traffic cases.

Harold Brown was on his way home from work when he was stopped by a police officer because the light above his license place was out. After Mr. Brown expressed annoyance, the officer told him to get out of his car and then threw him to the pavement.CreditCredit…Valley Brook Police Department

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, Tased, 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 over $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. Over 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10 percent of their revenue, enough to pay for an entire police force in some small communities, an analysis of census data shows.

A majority are in the South and Midwest, though clusters also appear outside New York City and Washington. They include Henderson, La., a town of about 2,000 people perched along Interstate 10 that collected $1.7 million in fines in 2019 — 89 percent of its general revenues — and where officers were accused of illegally receiving cash rewards for writing tickets. Oliver, Ga., with about 380 residents, gets more than half its budget from fines, but an investigation last year found that the local police had improperly written more than $40,000 in tickets outside their jurisdiction.

In Bratenahl, Ohio, the town government is so dependent on traffic enforcement that the police chief castigated his officers as “badge-wearing slugs” in an email when a downturn in ticket writing jeopardized raises. Ticket revenue helped finance sheriff’s equipment in Amherst County, Va.; a “peace officers annuity and benefit fund” in Doraville, Ga.; and police training in Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

“The message goes out that if you want more training, then go ahead and write more traffic tickets,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a former police chief in Seattle and three other cities.

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.

Mayors of predominantly white suburbs in Ohio, for example, defended the ticket-blitzing of Black drivers from Cleveland as an acceptable, if unfortunate, side effect of vigorously patrolling brief sections of interstates within their borders.

Some officers in Oklahoma, insistent that public safety is their goal, no longer cite drunken motorists for driving under the influence, and instead issue less-serious tickets that keep the drivers out of district court and generate more money for the town.

And in a small Virginia town last December, just days after the police threatened and pepper-sprayed a Black and Latino Army lieutenant, Caron Nazario, over a license plate infraction — body-camera video released in April would elicit public outrage — elected officials questioned the chief on why ticket revenue was down for the year. He later reminded his officers to issue at least “two tickets per hour” during federally funded patrols.

An officer in Windsor, Va., doused Second Lt. Caron Nazario with pepper spray at a stop last December.

Mr. Kerlikowske said that ticket quotas created bad incentives, but that there was value in police traffic enforcement focused on speeding, drinking and reckless driving — a “more important role than just, ‘you have a taillight out’ or ‘you have a tag light out.’” Using small violations as a pretext to search for more serious crimes was “a pretty weak excuse,” he said, given their rarity and the unnecessary risk that encounters could escalate.

A traffic signal citation in Euclid, Ohio, led to Richard Hubbard III, then 25, being beaten and Tased by an officer who was later fired, then reinstated by an arbitrator and is now facing assault charges. For Juanisha Brooks, a 34-year-old Defense Department employee, it was unlit taillights that prompted a Virginia state trooper to pull over, handcuff and arrest her — a traffic stop prosecutors later declared illegal.

And in Cashion, Okla., an officer chased, threw to the ground and Tased a 65-year-old grandmother who initially refused to accept an $80 ticket for a broken taillight. Ed Blau, a lawyer who represented the woman, Debra Hamil, said there was an entrenched financial motivation behind such traffic stops.

“You’ve got to fund the government somehow,” he said, “and that’s exactly how they do it: through fines and fees.”

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. This augments the town’s automated cameras.

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 A.C.L.U. called a “shadowy and unaccountable quasi-judicial system that wrings revenue from drivers.” The U.S. Supreme Court, as far back as 1927, flagged the inherent conflict in Ohio mayors imposing fines to pay “marshals, inspectors and detectives” who, in turn, generated cases.

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. In Kirkersville, the police chief resigned, citing, among other things, pressure from the mayor on traffic enforcement.

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. Either way, funding a significant police force — nearly triple the small-town average — is “really what our revenue goes for,” he said.

“That has gone into public safety, whether that is police, fire, building department and the service department,” the mayor said.

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.

But that was not enough for Mayor John Licastro, who emailed his police chief in November 2018 that a “downturn in mayor’s court revenue” was exacerbating a budget crunch and employee raises could be affected.

Chief Richard Dolbow sent a blunt email to officers: “I will be looking at stats and scheduling to see what I should do to motivate the badge wearing slugs that have fallen short on the promise and jeopardized our financial raises that we have worked so hard to maintain.”

Mr. Dolbow, who announced his retirement in August, did not respond to a request for comment. Mr. Licastro said, “The concern I expressed to the chief was because of a drop in revenue across the board, not just revenue from our mayor’s court.” That, he added, “affects all aspects of how we govern, including employee compensation.”

The outsize police force of Bratenahl, Ohio, patrols the brief stretch of Interstate 90 that runs within the town.Credit…Amber Ford for The New York Times

Bratenahl, with a population of 1,300 that is 83 percent white, uses its roughly 18 officers to patrol a strip of Interstate 90 that skirts the town’s border with Cleveland, where half the residents are Black. As a result, many days, the crowd in Bratenahl mayor’s court is mostly Black.

When Caitlin Johnson, a former journalist who had recently relocated to Bratenahl, tried to raise this issue at a public meeting, she said, the once-welcoming community turned cold. Bratenahl residents “love the police,” whom they view as a bulwark against big-city crime, she said.

“If you live there and you have a problem, any little thing, the police will be right there to help you,” said Ms. Johnson, who has since moved away. “But that is not the way that the people who pass through Bratenahl experience the police.”

Mayor Licastro said officers were simply following the law.

“We don’t choose who drives the Shoreway,” he said.

Though Bratenahl is 83 percent white, many days the crowd in mayor’s court is mostly Black.Credit…Amber Ford for The New York Times

Mr. Elkins offered a similar defense of Newburgh Heights, where Black residents account for about 22 percent 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 percent of license and insurance violations, and 63 percent of speeding cases involved Black motorists.

“We don’t really control who drives through our community,” he said.

Public Safety and Profiteering

On April 19, 1995, Oklahoma State Trooper Charles J. Hanger, nicknamed “The Hangman” for his zeal in pursuing traffic violations, made one of the most famous of roadway stops.

Heading north on I-35, Trooper Hanger spotted a battered 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis with no license plate. Its driver was Timothy J. 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 American 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 and some former police chiefs say that for every occasional lucky break, hundreds of innocent motorists are subjected to needless scrutiny, expense and potential danger.

“Because everybody on the road violates traffic laws, that allows the police, who are also in charge of criminal law enforcement, to investigate crime without meeting any of the standards required for criminal investigation,” said Sarah A. Seo, a law professor at Columbia University and the author of a history of traffic enforcement.

As early as the 1910s, Dr. Seo said, departments found that taking on traffic enforcement meant they could hire officers and expand their investigative powers. By 1920, traffic fines helped the Los Angeles police traffic division become “practically self-supporting,” according to an annual report at the time.

“We think that modern police departments and their power came from the need to fight crime,” Dr. Seo said. “Actually, it started with traffic enforcement.”

While tickets and the threat of punishment deter some would-be offenders, the need for municipalities to sustain that revenue model appears to be an incentive for many traffic stops today. An analysis of North Carolina court data by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that “significantly more tickets” were issued when localities experienced financial difficulties, suggesting they were “used as a revenue-generation tool rather than solely a means to increase public safety.”

Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C., required annual vehicle inspections before 1976, but many dropped them over time, saying they failed to deliver safety benefits. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office found that vehicle component failure figured in only a small percentage of crashes, and there was no evidence that things like broken taillights were significant factors.

Nevertheless, state and local governments continue to profit from catching violationsthat are largely unrelated to traffic safety.

In the 2019 fiscal year, Valley Brook, Okla., collected over $100,000 from tickets for “defective equipment” like Mr. Brown’s burned-out tag light, with citations issued, on average, nearly every day.

A vehicle search in Valley Brook, Okla., which brings in over 70 percent of its revenues from fines.Credit…Nick Oxford for The New York Times

A majority of stops in this town of less than a half square mile occur along a four-lane road with the police station, the courthouse, a cannabis dispensary, a liquor store owned by the mayor’s wife, and three strip clubs. Valley Brook — which collects 72 percent of its revenues from fines, the highest in the state — encourages swift payments; in court one night in July, a local judge told people to call friends and family to get money for fines, or else face jail.

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,” Chief 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 on 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 Mr. 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.

Nicholas Bowser, who said he had chosen not to pull over because he was afraid, was charged with public intoxication but not drunken driving.Credit…Nick Oxford for The New York Times

“The law put a hole in cities’ pocketbooks,” said Bruce Edge, an Oklahoma defense lawyer specializing in drunken-driving cases. So they reduce the charges, he said. “They get the money, and the driver is not going to be the least bit unhappy.”

Chief Stamp acknowledged that they file drunken-driving incidents as “public intoxication” but said revenue was not a factor and noted that prosecutors hadn’t pursued previous D.U.I. cases they had sent.

In an interview, Mr. Bowser said, “I should have gotten a D.U.I.” 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 Mr. Brown, the security guard, those charges too were dismissed, the officer was disciplined and Chief Stamp called to apologize. Still, Mr. 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

WhenLieutenant Nazario’s mistreatment by the police made national headlines in April, officials in Windsor, Va., 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 seatbelt 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. In an interview, Windsor’s police chief, Rodney Riddle, denied having ticket quotas, though he suggested the “bean counters” in town hall might welcome the money.

Rodney Riddle, chief of police in Windsor, which received a $15,750 federal grant last year to target speeders.Credit…Michael A. McCoy for The New York Times

But in a January email to officers, obtained through an open-records request, the chief pushed for enough tickets to comply with the grant paying the hourly cost of patrols.

“Please remember,” he wrote, “that you are required to write a minimum of two tickets per hour while on grant time and there is zero tolerance.”

Jessica Cowardin, a spokeswoman 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.”

Authorities in Virginia are well aware of the risks of tying traffic stops to money, whether from fines or grants. A state inspector general report in 2013 warned about providing incentives for police to conduct “excessive enforcement solely to generate additional revenue.”

The Virginia grants are a fraction of the roughly $600 million that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sends to states each year. Lucia Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said it did not encourage or require quotas or targets for grant recipients.

But a review of state grant applications found that the number of traffic stops is a common performance measure. In Arkansas, for instance, the goal was “three vehicle stops per hour” during grant-funded patrols, while in Madison, S.D., officers were required to “obtain two citations per grant hour.”

Indiana officials boasted in their 2014 annual report that officers enforcing seatbelt laws averaged 3.26 stops per hour. One was in Hammond, where an officer on grant-funded patrol pulled over a Black family and ended up in a dispute with a passenger, Jamal Jones, after demanding he identify himself. Video shows officers smashing a car window and firing a Taser at Mr. Jones, who, according to a lawsuit he later filed, tried to retrieve a document to use for identification.

It was a traffic ticket.

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, Calif., 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.

Arya Sundaram contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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