One has considerable sympathy for The Mercury in its attempts to convey public policy concepts in the space allotted. In the Aug. 18 front page article, “Riley Co. settles on boundary,” The Mercury reported comments I presented to the Board of County Commissioners concerning changes in the way the Riley County Police Department will address traffic violations in an effort to reduce accidents.
The discussion lasted 10 minutes — and was brief, at that. The Mercury was able to devote six paragraphs and 201 words to that discussion. I read the pertinent section of the article in 35 seconds. The quotes attributed to me were generally accurate, but failed to convey either the context of the discussion or the complexity of the issue; hence my attempt to clarify them here.
During the past 18 months, RCPD has significantly altered the manner in which it addresses crime in Manhattan. We have gone from reacting to crimes and filing reports to actively attempting to reduce crime by addressing crime from both a geographic and an individual perspective. We have become proactive rather than reactive. This can be translated loosely as, “In an effort to impact those who negatively impact our community, we go where the majority of crimes are committed and look for those specific individuals who commit the majority of crimes.”
In that vein, and in an attempt to determine the merit of that approach, RCPD has asked for assistance from KSU’s Department of Criminology. Early results are promising. While crime in Manhattan overall was down roughly 9 percent during the 2010 study period, it was down roughly 18 percent in the area targeted for high-visibility police activity; additional research is under way. All well and good, but why is this important to the traffic discussion reported in the Aug. 18 Mercury?
As it so happens, those areas of Manhattan where the frequency and severity of crime are greatest are also those areas where traffic accidents proliferate. The concept relayed to county commissioners was simply that where crime and traffic problems overlap, it makes sense to provide officers information regarding both in an effort to increase their ability to impact these issues. So then, if one wishes to reduce the number of traffic accidents, let alone crimes, how does one do so? The answer is not, as The Mercury’s editorial suggests, that “The regular presence of police cruisers can be an effective deterrent to crime.” Research has proven that police presence alone has little impact on crime or traffic, and to the extent that it does, it does only so when the officer is present. Return on investment diminishes rapidly when the officer leaves the area. How often have you been speeding (even slightly) down the interstate and slowed when you saw that trooper, only to increase your speed when he was safely in your rear-view mirror?
Now that we know what the answer is not, let’s examine what the answer may be. At the national level, current research (Yes, cops do research!) suggests that data-driven approaches that target specific traffic problems tend to be more successful in reducing accidents and improving the motoring public’s safety than just writing a bunch of tickets randomly about town.
But in order to target one’s resources, one must know where to aim. Our data provides that answer. We know where the majority of accidents happen. We also know what the proximate causes of these accidents tend to be. In brief, a lot of accidents happen in areas east of campus and Aggieville; a lot of them involve speeding, following too closely or inattention; and a lot of them happen along major roadways in that area, specifically Anderson/Bluemont Avenue.
Cops tend to be enforcement-oriented and would prefer to address every violation of the law they observe. It goes against the grain to permit any to go unremarked. But given available resources (read, “tax dollars”), it is impossible to be everywhere and enforce all laws equally. Nor would the community likely tolerate strict enforcement of every law. So in essence, we pick our battles. This is why, for example, officers enforce speeding violations more strictly in school zones than they do on Seth Child Road — or as The Mercury notes — Claflin Road west of campus. There is a community interest in doing so; in this case, the safety of school children in crosswalks.
Particularly problematic, from the RCPD’s perspective, was that section of The Mercury’s editorial which read, “…the tactic of pulling over drivers in one part of town for something they might not get pulled over for in another part of town on the chance that police will uncover another offense is troubling.” (Italics added) It proves problematic because while the first assertion is correct — drivers may indeed find less tolerance for inattentive driving in areas where inattentive driving causes a lot of accidents — the second is incorrect. There was no mention of any link between officers pulling people over for violations in targeted areas and doing so “…on the chance that police will uncover another offense…” The department’s intention is to reduce the number of accidents in areas where accidents proliferate. That happens to be some of the same areas where crime proliferates, and I’m willing to chalk The Mercury’s editorial comment up to a misunderstanding. Further, the department certainly has no desire to hold drivers on the east side to a higher standard than those on the west side, as The Mercury’s editorial suggests. What we do have is a desire to hold drivers in those areas where accidents proliferate due to identifiable violations of the law, to a standard sufficient to reduce accidents. It’s a difficult pill to swallow if you’re the one getting the ticket, but not so difficult if yours is the car that got rear-ended. More likely though, you will be the one getting a warning ticket, as those have outpaced “real” tickets at a rate of more than 2 to 1 thus far in 2011.
The Riley County Police Department’s mission statement reads as follows: “To reduce crime and improve the quality of life for the citizens we serve.” Our officers, supervisors and administrators take that mission statement seriously and endeavor to work diligently toward that end. To the extent that my communication skills when discussing the matter with the County Commission confused the matter, I apologize.
Brad Schoen is director of the Riley County Police Department.