Police chief: Shrinking staff a big cause of drop in traffic tickets

Nathaniel Herz
File photo: Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew
Bob Hallinen
Gambell Street in the Fairview neighborhood of Anchorage.
Bill Roth
Anchorage police said Thursday they have begun a targeted ticketing campaign aimed at encouraging safer driving on the Glenn Highway. "First speeding ticket this morning - driver going 78 mph in a 65 mph zone. Driver had license suspended 8xs," the police department said Thursday morning in a Twitter post with the above photo taken from a police cruiser.
Anchorage Police Dept. photo

Anchorage is recording a sharp decrease in the number of traffic tickets issued over the past five years. Police attribute the decline primarily to fewer officers, and a loss of grant funding for enforcement.

The drop -- from 56,622 tickets issued in 2009 to 22,566 in 2013 -- has not been accompanied by a rise in the number of accidents in the city. In fact, the number of accidents recorded by police actually decreased from 8,270 in 2009 to 8,085 in 2012, the latest year for which data was immediately available.

Chief Mark Mew said his department hasn't done extensive research into the effects of the decrease in tickets, but he said he didn't have any evidence that it has caused problems.

Nonetheless, he said he expects to see the trend reversed once the department puts more officers onto the street -- though the numbers likely won't start increasing until the middle of next year, he said, given the amount of time it will take for recruits to finish training.

"It is an issue. Believe me, we're writing tickets as much as we can. But we're going to take emergency calls first," Mew said in an interview. "This isn't a problem of our priorities getting astray, or something like that. This is just attrition. This is the delay in recruiting and hiring and training, and getting people back on the street."

Anchorage's police force is at a nine-year low, with 328 sworn officers as of January -- down from 380 in early 2010.

All of the city's patrol officers write traffic tickets,Mew said. But the department has cut its traffic unit -- specifically tasked with writing tickets and responding to accidents -- down to six officers from as many as 14.

Grant funding that paid for drunken driving and traffic enforcement by officers on overtime has also dried up, from more than $1 million in 2009 to about $150,000 in 2013.

One other factor is a policy shift forced in part by the staffing shortfall that has left police investigating fewer traffic accidents.

Studies have shown that enforcement can make a difference in driving behavior. One from 2003 showed that drivers in Canada who had been recently convicted of traffic violations were less likely to get into fatal accidents, while another published last year showed that a high-visibility enforcement campaign in Florida led more drivers to yield to pedestrians.

Mew said Anchorage police still conduct targeted campaigns, like one effort scheduled to begin Thursday on the Glenn Highway.

The department also has competitions that challenge officers to catch the most people driving over 100 miles an hour on the highway, or more than 30 miles an hour over the speed limit in the city, Mew said. (Those contests, he stressed, do not come with quotas for officers.)

Beyond the slight decline in the total number of accidents, detailed statistics tracked by police between 2009 and 2012 do not shown any clear trends.

There were 17 fatal accidents in 2009 and 15 in 2012, while there were 324 crashes in 2009 with intoxication involved, and 303 in 2012.

One tangible result of the drop in tickets is less money generated for the city: $950,000 in fines in 2013, down from $1.9 million in 2009.

"I'm very concerned about that," said Lucinda Mahoney, the city's chief fiscal officer. "To the extent that we do not have citation revenues means we have to increase property taxes."

But the drop doesn't come as a surprise, said Paul Honeman, the chair of the Assembly's public safety committee.

He said he doesn't think the department should shift its priorities, and instead should simply hire more officers.

"They really need the staffing," he said. "It's not good for public safety if we're not enforcing the laws that are on the books."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.