Playing Politics with Your Safety?

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This 2nd article is very important, because it has to do with the safety of our community.  Let’s start off by laying some groundwork with a few facts.

By default, the police protection for the Village of Germantown Hills (and other cities and villages within Woodford County) is provided by the Woodford County Sheriff’s Department.  Our residents pay property taxes to the County, and since 1999, the County has also imposed a 1% Public Safety sales tax to defray costs of the new County Jail, as well as other public safety uses.  That is how municipalities pay for this.  Notwithstanding that, for many years the Village of Germantown Hills has also contracted with the Woodford County Sheriff’s Department to provide additional patrol hours within the Village.  Over the years, that extra coverage has ranged from 62 hours per month, then to 80, and currently 120 hours per month. 

Part of the reason these additional patrols have been needed is because of our particular situation.  As we all know, Germantown Hills is bisected by Illinois State Rte 116, a four-lane highway with a 50 mph speed limit and three traffic lights.  Data taken within the last two years shows that during rush hour, 1/3 of the vehicles are passing through the village at 60 mph or faster, and 7% over 65 mph.  On average, two cars per minute are exceeding 60 mph.  In addition, many of us have observed 18-wheel trucks running red lights at the intersections.  Some have even blown their horns to warn cars not to pull out when their light is green because the truck driver knows he is going to run that red light.  And so it is no wonder that there have been some major crashes at those intersections over the years. 

Also, in our neighborhoods a few commuters exceed the speed limit and run stop signs at the same time that children are walking or biking to school on those streets.  While filming a video for a sidewalk grant, we happened to catch a heavy truck going an estimated 32 mph in a 20 mph zone right by the grade school.  Only one minute before this video was shot, several first and second grade children were walking nearby. 

The Village has talked with the Illinois Department of Transportation about lowering the speed limit along Rte 116 to something less than 50 mph.  But IDOT has standards for speed limits, and they’ve told us that because of the configuration of the road, along with its limited number of access points, it doesn’t qualify for a lower speed limit. 

Faced with this, in the 1990s the Village Board developed a strategy to increase traffic law enforcement along Rte 116 in general, and to also do directed enforcement when problems were observed in the neighborhoods and side streets. 

It is well understood by police professionals that in order to get drivers to slow down at all times (not only just when police cars are visible), that there has to be a credible threat to the driver that they will get a citation if they break traffic laws.  And that credibility is increased greatly when drivers coming through the Village observe that other drivers have been stopped, and are being ticketed.  This is much more effective at changing driver behaviors than just having a police car parked by the side of the road.

It took some time working with the Sheriff in the 1990s to achieve the goal of creating a reputation for credible traffic law enforcement in Germantown Hills.  With just 80 hours per month of contract patrols per month, in 1996 and 1997 we reached an average level of 41 citations per month by our contract patrols.  This provided a significant deterrent to speeding and other violations of traffic laws.  The residents of the Village fully supported this strategy.  We had full support and no complaints from either residents or businesses.

That level of traffic enforcement is also comparable to other nearby communities.  From January through July of 2010, Metamora issued an average of 64 citations per month. Washington Illinois issues about 90 citations per month as a base, and issues more than that when doing directed patrols.

So with that as a success background, let’s now talk about where we are today.  A couple of years ago, we were looking at a routine report that we receive monthly from the Woodford County Sheriff’s Office, detailing activity for our contract patrols.   One of the statistics on that report is numbers of citations written during that month.  Something about it looked wrong, and on closer examination, we realized that citation counts had fallen dramatically below where they had been in the 1990s, despite the fact that we had increased contract hours from 80 to 120 hours per month (an increase of 50%). We’d fallen from 38 citations a month to only about 15 per month, a huge drop.  Here a plot of citations written by the Woodford County Sheriff’s Deputies while working for the Village of Germantown Hills under contract.  The left side shows 1994 to 1997, and the right side shows 2006 to present:

Here is a link to a blowup of this graph:  Police Citation Graph

Given that startling comparison, we raised the issue with the full Village Board, since there had not been any Police Committee meetings since Ken Slater, the newly appointed Trustee, took over as Police Chairman.  Surprisingly, the Mayor and Ken, plus the two other Trustees that had been elected with the Mayor, saw nothing wrong with the large drop in traffic stop and citation counts. 

It was very hard to understand why the Mayor and his allies didn’t see this as a problem.  To us it looked like a major drop in police productivity.  Furthermore, while traffic tickets are written for safety and not for revenue, and they never have nor never will pay for the overall cost of police protection, the reduced ticket count was costing the Village about $20,000 a year in lost revenue that at least partially paid for the police contract. 

We were going nowhere in the full VB discussion, so we requested that a Police Committee meeting be held to talk about this.  That meeting was held on August 9, 2010.  There have been contentious and nasty discussions ever since, and only one more Police Committee meeting held recently.  Throughout those meetings, we were unable to reach agreement on this problem.  Instead, we heard a lot of excuses why everything was fine the way it was.  And worse yet, the numbers of citations, instead of increasing, has dropped further, where recently it has only been 4 per month, a huge drop from nearly 40 per month!

Here are some of the arguments that the Committee Chairman, the Mayor, and the other new Trustees have been made in arguing that everything is just fine.  The arguments are shown in dark red.  In blue after each one, are our counter-arguments stating why we don’t think their arguments are valid.

–Maybe there aren’t enough speeders to write tickets.  Maybe we don’t have as many people speeding now. 

(The rush hour speed study proved otherwise)

 

–Asking the Deputy to write more tickets means we must set ticket quotas.

(Other police departments expect and achieve police citation productivity without setting ticket quotas). 

 

–There is too much else for the Deputy to do, the Village has grown, and more businesses need to be checked.

(We are now contracting for 120 hours per month v.s. 80 before.  We haven’t grown that much additional business in 10 years, so why should citations be expected to drop so dramatically)?

 

–Putting a patrol car out where it can be seen, or driving around town is just as effective for traffic enforcement as writing tickets.

(Per a police expert, citations create a much stronger deterrent when the police car is not there.  In support of that fact, Peoria just spent $60,000 on new equipment that will enable their police to write tickets faster). 

 

–If we write more tickets, people won’t come to do business with us.  (Stated by a local businesswoman).

1.  Business profit is important, but safety of the people in our community is more important. 

2.  Slower traffic speeds through a community are known to help businesses.

3.  This has not been a problem for the businesses of other nearby communities that write even more tickets, nor was it a problem in Germantown Hills in the 1990s. 

 

–You just want a police car at every intersection.

Only Trustee Clark Hopkins has said that, nobody else.

 

–You just want to make a big $3.5 million dollar police department.  

Only Trustee Ken Slater has said that, nobody else.  All the Village Board needs to do  is to return to a focus on enforcement that we once had before. 

 

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Summary:

We’ve just discussed an important safety issue for the residents of Germantown Hills.  We know that we need to reduce traffic violations on Rte 116, primarily by people who live outside of our Village.  We also need to get truckers to slow down, and obey our traffic lights.  And we have to protect the children walking or biking to school in our neighborhoods.

The Village Board in the past had a very effective strategy for doing this, by building a credible reputation for traffic enforcement.  That same strategy also helped the Village financially.  But the new Mayor and Trustees actively oppose that past strategy.  And because of that, the Sheriff’s Department is getting a mixed message from the Village Board.  This isn’t a problem with the Sheriff or his Deputies.  This is a problem with our own Village Board.

We frankly do not understand why the Mayor and his allies are responding this way.  One has to ask, is this just another case of them assuming that every process from the past must be wrong?  If that is the case, then they shouldn’t be playing politics with people’s lives. 

          Mike Gaetz                                                     Terry Quinn

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