Sunday, December 10, 2017
Politics

Did FHP break the law in setting a 'goal' for the number of speeding tickets?

TALLAHASSEE — A high-ranking Florida Highway Patrol official wants every trooper under his command to write at least two tickets an hour, an order a key legislator says is against state law.

"The patrol wants to see two citations each hour," Maj. Mark Welch wrote in an email to the troopers in an eight-county region based in Tallahassee that includes nearly 100 miles of Interstate 10. "This is not a quota; it is what we are asking you to do to support this important initiative."

That initiative is SOAR, or the Statewide Overtime Action Response program, paid for by taxpayers. Florida state troopers, who are among the lowest-paid in the country, can make extra money working high-traffic areas, such as I-10. Part of the job is to deter speeders.

Welch supervises Troop H, covering eight counties: Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla.

In Welch's July 28 email, obtained by the Times/Herald, he noted that Highway Patrol officers recently got 5 percent raises, thanks to the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, "which has also increased your overtime rate." North Florida troopers are writing an average of 1.3 tickets per hour in the SOAR program. Welch said that that's not good enough, "so we have a goal to reach."

Welch's order does not apply to the rest of the state.

Scott and the Cabinet will be asked next week to endorse a plan to boost trooper salaries an additional 10 percent. The starting annual salary for a trooper would rise from $38,000 to $42,000 a year from now.

Scott, who is expected to run for U.S. Senate next year, said last month that he will ask the Legislature for $30 million for pay raises for all state law enforcement officers next year.

State law prohibits the Highway Patrol to set ticket quotas.

Two years ago, after a furor in the notorious North Florida speed trap town of Waldo, the Legislature expanded the quota ban to include most local law enforcement agencies.

The bill (SB 264) says: "A traffic enforcement agency may not establish a traffic citation quota."

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who oversees the FHP budget, said Welch has no authority to tell troopers to write more tickets.

"That goes against everything the Florida Highway Patrol should be doing," said Brandes, who chairs the Senate's transportation budget committee. "FHP is about safety. It's not about meeting quotas."

Lt. Col. Mike Thomas, a three-decade veteran of the patrol, said that Welch could have chosen his words more carefully, but that his motives are sound and that he was not imposing a ticket quota.

"It's like a want," Thomas said. "We're just trying to promote our guys getting out, making the stops, having contact with the public, educating them, and we do have discretion. No one has ever taken discretion away from a patrol officer."

Thomas spoke on behalf of Col. Gene Spaulding, the agency director, who was unavailable. The agency declined the Times/Herald's requests to interview Welch.

While Highway Patrol troopers can issue warnings, Welch said in the email that only tickets work as a deterrent.

"The only way to try to alter that behavior is by impacting the motorist with the sanctions surrounding a traffic citation," he wrote.

William Smith, a veteran highway patrolman and president of the FHP chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said Welch's email was a quota if ever there was one.

"Two tickets per hour? That's a quota. That's a violation of state statute, period. No ifs, ands or buts," Smith said.

In Miami-Dade, troopers who met ticket-writing goals for March were given a weekend off with pay in an April memo.

"Sergeants, please get with these members and schedule their weekend pass," the memo said.

That's illegal, too, Smith said.

Thomas said the FHP checked out the memo and found no wrongdoing, "but they withdrew that practice," he said.

Traffic fatalities and crashes with serious bodily injury are on the rise in Florida, and reversing that trend is a high priority at the Highway Patrol.

Even as the state's population grows, the number of licensed drivers is rapidly increasing and tourism reaches record numbers, the number of tickets is on the decline as the patrol continues to struggle with high turnover.

FHP figures show that troopers wrote 934,965 citations in 2014, 869,352 in 2015 and 749,241 last year. One reason for the drop is the large number of vacancies on the patrol, currently 181 out of 1,974 road patrol positions.

To save lives, the patrol has launched an "Arrive Alive" campaign, a data-driven traffic safety program working with sheriffs and local police departments and focusing attention on "hot spots" where fatal and bodily-injury crashes are most common.

Thomas said troopers want to reduce the level of traffic deaths and injuries, but he said they often would rather encourage better driving without writing expensive tickets.

"We're pretty public-friendly," Thomas said.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

 
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