A universal gripe from drivers on the other side of the ticket pad, a complaint that knows no municipal or state boundary, has been that they're only getting a ticket so the officer can meet a quota. For the Charleston Police Department, it's not about fulfilling quotas, it's about meeting goals.
A recent e-mail to the city's traffic officers sets goals for citations and check points and threatens reassignment and "permanent days off."
The goals are meant to motivate a few lax officers and aren't quotas, says Lt. Chip Searson, the traffic enforcement commander. He sent out the e-mail to his staff last week after Chief Gregg Mullen questioned the team's productivity. The City Paper got a copy of the e-mail through an anonymous tip.
A cynic's response would be that it's all about the money. Fees collected by the police department are projected to reach $1.2 million this year — more than double what the department pulled in just four years ago. Revenue has never been brought up by Mullen, who was hired in late 2006, or any other city or department official, Searson says.
"We could care less about money," he says.
Instead, it's about motivating a handful of officers who aren't aggressive enough in enforcement. Traffic concerns are one of the biggest quality-of-life issues facing the community.
"I've probably got three or four complaints in the last 10 to 15 minutes," he says, things like a driver running over a woman's shrub or parents blocking traffic to pick their kids up from school. "The goal isn't to write tickets; it's to correct driving behavior. We know the violations are out there."
The officers in the traffic unit cover motor and DUI issues throughout the city, as opposed to most officers who are assigned to specific jurisdictions, like West Ashley, or James Island, or a slice of the peninsula. The weekly goals break down to about two tickets an hour for traffic officers and a little more than one an hour for cops on one of two DUI units. Each unit is expected to have two check points a week.
Increased citations not only ensures productivity, Searson says, it also addresses reckless driving before bad behavior leads to a collision.
The city has anywhere from 90 to 125 accidents a week, he says. And traffic fatalities are on track to end up slightly higher than last year's total (with eight so far this year as opposed to 10 in all of 2008). A note on the bulletin board outside Searson's office reads, "Save a Life Today."
"And they literally could do that," he says. "Sometimes we lose sight of our mission and we need to be reminded."