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Perception and reality

Interesting news that the number of traffic citations issued by the Columbia Police department has declined sharply. The numbers are really amazing. According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, "Traffic tickets and summonses police doled out in 2015 decreased by 72.8 percent from 2010’s 10-year high of 13,337."

An almost 73 percent decrease in traffic tickets. What is most surprising, is it is unlikely that anyone driving around or through Columbia would have recognized this massive decrease. The number of crashes, drunken drivers and other traffic problems certainly has not increased by a similar amount.

Imagine if the highway department said they were reducing road maintenance 73 percent, and that they would only fix a quarter of potholes, broken traffic lights or anything else that needed maintenance. That would be noticeable.

The police exist to serve and maintain public safety, but when you look at these numbers, you realize how much discretion they have in carrying out those functions and reductions like this lead you to think that perception of public safety and reality often differ.

The criticism that many Missouri departments faced after Ferguson and the changes that the legislature made to prevent police departments from behaving as tax collectors with badges is part of the change, although Columbia was never anywhere as abusive as cities like Ferguson.

Some in the department complain that the drop in traffic stops has meant they find fewer violations of drug or firearm laws, but that argument seems belies the idea that traffic enforcement is primarily about traffic safety, instead of a cover for pretext stops that may violate the Fourth Amendment.

But we all must recognize that policing is a very complex activity and that playing the numbers game of many arrests as a means of demonstrating "effectiveness" can have very negative consequence.

Other policies, like the use of DUI checkpoints, have very little to do with actually reducing drunk drivers and more to do with law enforcement's marketing of their "handling" the problem of intoxicated drivers.

Source: columbiatribune.com, "Traffic citations continue downward trend as enforcement takes back seat to community outreach," Alan Burdziak, June 12, 2016

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