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Traffic law enforcement still a hot topic

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Even though traffic law enforcement and street safety is a top priority for the Austin Police Department, the majority of officers have little time to devote to such enforcement, given their other priorities, such as responding to citizens’ calls and engaging in community policing efforts.

That is the major conclusion of an audit report produced by members of the city auditor’s team and discussed at the City Council Audit and Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Cameron Lagrone, the auditor-in-charge of the audit, told the committee that officers spend 79 percent of their time on duty responding to calls for service, leaving only 21 percent of their time available for other duties. Such duties include finishing reports, doing directed patrols in known hot spots, engaging with residents and businesses in their patrol area, and traffic enforcement.

APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom reminded Council members that Chief Brian Manley has emphasized that his officers need to do community outreach. Newsom told the Austin Monitor, “Our push, and especially since Chief Manley has been chief, is community engagement. We would rather officers get out of their cars and talk to residents about their problems and try to collaborate and find solutions. … Those are the same officers that are enforcing traffic laws at some point, so finding that balance for everyone is tough given our current staffing and the requirements of a growing city.”

He added that decisions about where to concentrate traffic enforcement efforts are “based on deaths and serious injuries. We have to focus our limited traffic enforcement resources where the greatest impact is happening. And that’s the high-speed roadways and the major intersections.”

Even though the city has set a goal of having zero traffic deaths or serious injuries on Austin roadways by 2025, that goal, called Vision Zero, must compete with the other important goal of improving relationships between the police and members of the community.

As of Aug. 1, “citywide patrol capacity was at 82% total staffing, with 84 vacancies and 52 officers on long term leave,” according to the report.

APD also had to remove almost 400 vehicles from service in July 2017 due to concerns about carbon monoxide and the vehicles. Although all of those vehicles returned to service by July 2018, many officers had to double up, so there were fewer officers riding alone in their vehicles to conduct traffic enforcement.

In order to increase traffic law enforcement, the city relies on a grant from the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program, or STEP, which is administered by the Texas Department of Transportation, to pay officers for overtime hours devoted to traffic law enforcement. According to the report, the city receives about $1 million per year to pay for enforcement efforts focused on speeding, distracted driving, impaired driving and other causes of vehicle crashes.

For the calendar year 2017, APD reported that its officers averaged 1,173 hours of traffic “enforcement per month through the STEP grant, and issued a large percentage of the traffic citations issued by APD.” According to an analysis by the audit team, officers working under the STEP program issued 54 percent of APD’s speeding citations, 62 percent of the city’s seat belt citations and 48 percent of citations issued for distracting driving in 2017, as well as citations for failure to have a child safety seat and violation of intersections signals.

The other part of the enforcement equation is red light cameras, which are administered by the Austin Municipal Court. According to the audit, the city currently has 10 red light cameras located at nine intersections. APD reviews the photos to determine if there has been a violation and then sends a citation.

“Red light cameras appear to have been successful at reducing the number of crashes at intersections,” according to the audit report. “In the year prior to activation, the nine intersections had 145 crashes,” but afterward averaged fewer than 50 crashes per year from the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2016.

The report notes that there had been an agreement in 2016 to move two of the cameras to better locations, but that had not yet occurred at the time of the audit.

While the red light cameras appear to be effective in reducing collisions at those intersections, they do not generate very much money for the Municipal Court. According to the audit, “For the past three years, about 90% of the gross revenue from red light camera citations went to funding the operation and administration of the cameras. The State collects 50% of the remaining revenue and Municipal Court transfers the other half to the Public Works Transportation Capital Improvement Program to be used for traffic safety improvements.” That program got about $170,000 in revenue between the start of FY 2014 and the end of FY 2017.

The report notes that “While Municipal Court’s budget has remained relatively constant over the last three years, citation revenue has decreased each year.” For example, in FY 2015, the court collected $6.6 million in traffic citation revenue and had an overall budget of $16 million. The next year, the budget was $16.2 million but traffic citation revenue fell to $5.6 million. And in FY 2017, that revenue fell to $4.7 million and the budget was reduced to $15.4 million.

“Staff with both APD and Municipal Court stressed that the purpose of traffic enforcement is to promote safety on city streets, not to generate revenue for the city. This focus results in actions that reduce the amount of revenue that may be collected each year, but creates potentially safer roads. For example, APD policy advises officers to issue a citation for defective headlights or tail-lights only if there is evidence of willful neglect or the driver has multiple warnings,” according to the audit report.

Members of the committee voted to accept the audit’s recommendations, although there were several requests for additional information.

Council Member Alison Alter noted that she has received a number of complaints from people living in her district about inadequate traffic enforcement in some neighborhoods. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that she has received complaints from people in her district about people who speed through marked pedestrian crossings. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that he also has received complaints from people in his district about insufficient enforcement. This topic seems likely to come back, possibly during budget discussions.

Photo by Kevin Payravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons.

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