KSN Investigates: WPD Tickets

WICHITA, Kans. (KSNW) — Let’s face it, getting pulled over is nerve-wracking for anyone!

“I’ve had officers behind me in other cities. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. I don’t even like it,” said Deputy Chief, Troy Livingston, of the Wichita Police Department.

Yet most drivers agree that sometimes, traffic tickets are necessary to promote safe driving and to prevent accidents.

“Swerving, tailgating – yes, I have an issue with that,” said Tara Stewart, a Wichita driver.

“I don’t think they’re writing enough tickets,” said Janet Doughty of Wichita.

But tickets often come with big fines that can hit especially hard in low-income or crime-ridden areas that police call hot spots.

“You don’t want to victimize them twice,” said Livingston. “They’ve already experienced the crimes in that hot spot, and to give them a ticket for a minor violation is not the type of police department we want to be.”

Deputy Chief Troy Livingston, Wichita Police Department
Deputy Chief Troy Livingston, Wichita Police Department

A NEW APPROACH

That’s why last July, just 10 days before a community cookout hosted by Wichita Police, Chief Gordon Ramsay emailed all his officers, saying in part: “We need to continue to create positive contacts and build relationships with our residents – more than ever before. If you can get compliance with minor offenses with a warning versus a ticket, I am all for it.”

“Y’know, a warning does have an impact,” explained Livingston. “People walk away and go, ‘Man, I got a break. I’m not doing that again.'”

In the fall, WPD began an official test project to track warnings. Traffic officers use e-citation devices to issue and document the warnings that before, had only been verbal.

From September through December of last year, traffic officers gave out 939 warnings for everything from seat belt and parking violations to improper turns and defective brake lights. But more than half the warnings – 572 – were for speeding, though the data doesn’t show how much they were speeding.

“Obviously speed makes accidents worse. It contributes to accidents so I’m concerned about the number of speeding tickets,” said Livingston. “If they’re giving a warning for a speed violation, I feel very comfortable saying it’s for a minor speed violation.”

But is a warning enough to change how a person drives?

Dr. Michael Birzer has actually studied issues like this. He’s a criminal justice professor at Wichita State University whose team did an overall assessment of WPD in 2015 at the request of the city manager. We asked if warnings could give drivers false confidence that they can get away with speeding.

“No, I think if you issue the written contact warning, I think often times that has the same effect as if you’re getting a citation,” said Dr. Birzer.

He added that cracking down too much on traffic violations can backfire.

“Often what you see is if poor populations get ticketed, there’s an escalation- they can’t pay the ticket, that moves into a warrant, they’re picked up, taken to jail to take care of the warrant. It just spirals.”

Dr. Michael Birzer, Wichita State University
Dr. Michael Birzer, Wichita State University

What’s more, Dr. Birzer said speeders in Wichita are usually not going fast enough to cause serious accidents.

“In a city, in a municipality, typically you wouldn’t have the threat that you would as opposed if you’re on a highway.”

Last year, Wichita had 27 fatal accidents, 16 of those in the last six months after the Chief’s email went out, encouraging more warnings. That’s identical to the fatal accident rate in the last half of 2015.

What changed was the number of tickets.

From July through December of 2016, Wichita officers issued far fewer citations- 18,782, compared to 25,642 in the same period of 2015.

That’s a difference of 6,860 tickets.

Remember, police did give out at least 939 warnings during that time, but why such a dramatic drop in citations?

“I think it’s more of a staffing issue and a crime issue,” said Livingston.

The deputy chief said the department is down four traffic cops and had many more in training or military leave.

Other officers might have been too busy to write tickets because of an increase last year in aggravated assaults that took them away from traffic duties.

Livingston does not believe officers intentionally stopped writing tickets.

“Y’know, if an officer thinks that the chief encouraging warnings is license to ignore the law or ignore doing their job, they are sadly mistaken,” said Livingston.

“What the chief is doing, I think it’s right on with what we’re seeing nationally, and I think he’s using smart policing is what he’s doing here,” said Dr. Birzer.

He is not concerned with the drop in tickets, as long as police are still making plenty of car stops.

“More contacts with the citizens come through the traffic stop than any other, and that’s about 26 million a year.”

Police pulling someone over for even a minor offense can uncover bigger ones, like drugs, stolen property or outstanding warrants. Dr. Birzer believes whether drivers get a ticket, a warning or just a conversation, it’s that interaction with officers that really affects public safety and public opinion.

Wichita police hope to improve both.

“I think that’s just policing with common sense and compassion. It’s okay to police with compassion,” said Livingston.

The deputy chief hopes to turn the test project on warnings into policy next month, allowing all officers on the force to issue and track warnings.

By this time next year, WPD will have a better idea whether more warnings and less tickets have any effect on accidents.

WEB EXTRA | A WICHITA POLICE CHIEF INITIATES TRAFFIC WARNINGS IN 1934

O.W. Wilson in his Chicago days.
O.W. Wilson in his Chicago days.

O.W. Wilson was chief in Wichita from 1928-1939. He was known to employ research tested ideas in policing – many of them were from his own studies which were pioneering in the profession at the time. He started the traffic education program in 1934 in lieu of more punitive sanctions, and in order to improve relations with the community while garnering greater community support. A public address system, mounted on the police traffic truck was deployed to high traveled intersections for traffic observations. A citizen who was observed violating a traffic law was promptly informed of the indiscretion by an officer who would bring it to their attention over the public address system.

In 1960, Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, in the wake of a major police scandal, established a commission headed by O.W. Wilson to find a new police commissioner. In the end, Daley decided to appoint Wilson himself, as Commissioner. Beginning on March 2, 1960, Wilson served the Superintendent of Police of the Chicago Police Department until 1967 when he retired.