Policing or Profiteering?

Many police critics have long suspected money, moreso than safety, has driven police ticketing. Of course, we know they are wrong. Or are they?

As I write this, May 2010 is in its final days, spring is in full swing, and schools are calling the year a wrap with an eye to summer vacation. And of course, the annual pre-Memorial Day law enforcement initiative known as "Click-It-or-Ticket" is on and coming to a highway near you! And as always, in the form of letters to the editor and newspaper reader's comments, all manner of blog posts, and snide remarks by the recently ticketed, are the howls of outrage that, "These tickets are never about safety! They are just a way to raise revenue on the backs of hard-working, law-abiding citizens."

But the purpose of this article is not to attack or defend, or even discuss, "Click-It-or-Ticket." If not that program, many of the same howlers would latch onto targeted speed enforcement, DUI patrols and checkpoints, and any number of other initiatives.

There have always been those suspicious, and complaining, that law enforcement efforts targeting certain offenses (traffic, parking and certain local ordinances, in particular) were more concerned with generating revenue, via fine monies, than in promoting safety or protecting the public interest. Now, I know that most of us do effectively narrow our focus to the matters of greatest importance. I hope most of us cite those most in need of citation, and warn those for whom a warning is enough, with no consideration of whether or not we are helping fill the government piggy banks.

In any given day I observe countless minor violations of the Illinois Vehicle Code I choose to take a pass on. Of those I do stop, if the driver has a valid license and insurance, a reasonably good driving record, is clear of warrants and not taking part in other criminal activity, and respectful, they are probably going to be on their way with nothing worse than a warning. Likewise, many minor statutory or ordinance violations I am called to can be resolved with a bit of education and a handshake. Other cops may hold different philosophies but this works for me, and somehow I still manage to be one of the top arrest producers in my department. I could write a ticket book worth of citations each day before lunch, but I choose to aim for quality enforcement over quantity of enforcement. Of the cops I work, know and correspond with, I think my style is the rule rather than an exception. (And for the record, in fourteen years as a cop I have written a grand total of one seatbelt ticket. It was late 1997. I still feel bad about it.)

We can offer explanations and counterarguments to dispel persistent rumors and notions we are intent on shaking down beleaguered citizens whose taxes grant us the authority and compensation to do so in the first place, but they will be largely scoffed at. No need to bore you with a recitation of their common slanders of our intentions; you have heard them all by now, anyway, and could only add to the list. But the purpose of this article is not to prompt frustrated reader reaction to an unappreciative, uncomprehending, misguided, etc, etc, etc... populace. Way too easy, but ultimately unproductive.

The purpose of this article is to elicit thoughtful self-examination, and hopefully some dialogue, among ourselves that transcends traditional counter-sniping with the haters. What I want to do is threefold: first, to consider the modern etiology of the idea of the police as modern day, government-sanctioned highwaymen; second, to examine whether there may be a grain (or more) of truth to the idea, at least on some level and; third, to ask whether, if we are being placed or pressured into that role, is it an appropriate use of our police power or misguided, counterintuitive, and possibly even unethical, mismanagement.

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