COLUMBIA — If you’ve recently seen the flash of blue and red lights in your rear-view mirror and felt the sting of a pricey ticket for a traffic violation, you are not alone.
Columbia traffic officers wrote over 3,000 more traffic citations in 2009 than in 2008, according to Columbia police statistics. And it's no accident that the increase came with the arrival of Police Chief Kenneth Burton last April.
Though officers can issue a written warning, give verbal warnings or a citation, Burton has come to believe in the impact a ticket makes. He said that a citation makes it less likely that someone would commit the same violation again.
He has put a number on his expectations: A productive traffic officer should write, on average, three citations an hour. An average of one per hour was being written when Burton started with the Columbia Police Department.
But he emphasizes that the number is "not a quota" because he is not requiring traffic officers to write a certain number of tickets to keep their jobs; he just wants to see more tickets.
“I don’t drive a police car to work,” Burton said, “but I could write two to three citations on my way to work and at least two to three more on my way home.” Burton said he lives about two miles from the Columbia Police Department.
The department is also paying closer attention to citizen complaints about traffic violations in their neighborhoods, he said. The goal is fewer accidents, injuries and, hopefully, a lower overall crime rate, Burton said.
“How do you think crooks get to their victims?” Burton said, “If we stop more vehicles, we stop more crooks, leading to more crooks in jail.”
In 2008, not a single month ended with over 2,000 citations written, but 2009 tells a different story: 2,000 or more citations were issued in five months last year, three of those in the period after Burton took over. The same trend continues this year resulting in the Police Department writing 2,112 citations in January, one of the highest single month citation numbers in the past couple years.
Traffic officers wrote an average of 64.8 citations per day in 2009, a 17.2 percent increase from the 2008 average of 55.3 citations written per day. Last June, officers reached the highest per day average in a single month in the past few years, amassing 79.1 citations per day.
Shara Meyer, a Municipal Court clerk, has seen evidence of the increased emphasis on citations in Municipal Court.
“The filings for us jumped to the highest around July but have stayed similar to those numbers in recent months,” she said.
Lori Fleming, the city's finance director, said that the revenue from traffic citations goes into a general fund.
"The revenue goes into a pot of money that is used for general services like the Police and Fire departments, along with other city services," she said.
City Council gave the court the budget it needed to hire four new people this year to help deal with the growing workload. Meyer said one of the four hires had already been made as of last week. The court expects work to grow as the Columbia's red light cameras go into full swing. Three of they city's five red light cameras are still not functioning, said Toni Messina, public communications director for the city.
The Police Department, meanwhile, received funding for two new motorcycle traffic officers in the 2010 budget, along with two new DWI enforcement officers paid for by the state.
The growing police traffic presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by professional Columbia drivers. Terry Nickerson, owner of Taxi Terry’s, said he has seen more traffic stops in recent months.
“I have seen it getting a lot worse,” Nickerson said, “especially drunken driving law enforcement.”
He said he thinks an increased police presence has led to more people being pulled over around "happy hour."
"I think the days of people only getting DWIs around 12-3 a.m. isn’t the case anymore," he said.
Burton stated there had not been a concentrated effort around "happy hour" but traffic officers' increased attention to violations should lead to more stops earlier in the day.