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Thomas Michalski
Law enforcement’s changing face
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Law enforcement is changing due to contemporary breakthroughs like unmanned drones, speed cameras, police incentives for writing traffic tickets, face and license plate recognition software, and other implementations.

These latest efforts cause politicians to drool when they see how money by way of traffic fines can be generated for pork barrel projects and general expenditures.

I believe that criminals and traffic offenders need to be punished for their dastardly deeds, and it’s no secret that Florida reportedly has the worst drivers, anywhere. But granting police officers extra money to write more citations isn’t the way to resolve our problems.

Law officers in the U.S. issue an average of 112,000 speeding tickets each day, or 41 million annually. The average cost of a speeding ticket is $112 or $6.232 billion each year. It is said that each police officer generates an average of $300,000 annually in traffic fines, with only 5 percent being contested in courtrooms.

Connecticut introduced the first speed limit of 10 mph in 1901. Back in the day officers would stretch a rope across a road to stop violators who were almost always local residents. Today, however, out of town drivers are more likely to get a ticket resulting in a fine.

A police sergeant once told me that the current recession will result in officers issuing more citations than ever before. And that politicians would dream up more ways to raise money for their cities … through the scandalous enforcement of laws.

However, to base police salary increases on traffic ticket and court revenues borders on anarchy. In Atlanta, for example, it’s been reported that money from fines will fund future pay raises for police officers. That can only lead officers to extort even more money from the general public.

In a recent study by George Mason University in Massachusetts, it is reported that police cash incentives drive increased ticketing. However, traffic accidents do decline.

Closer to home, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed granting pay raises to state employees ... including troopers ... based on job performance. During a recent speech in West Palm Beach, Scott said state troopers issued more than 800,000 tickets last year. His idea is to grant them a $2,500 bonus annually for making three traffic stops an hour, and up to $5,000 for additional stops

The question is would more Paul Lawrences be created under the Scott plan?

Lawrence was a South Florida state trooper who was sentenced to a year in jail for fraudulently writing hundreds of fake summonses. Although FHP and other agencies deny quota systems, it would have been interesting to learn what caused the super trooper to launch his illegal ticket writing spree.

Just a few months ago during MacDill AFB’s Air Fest 2014 a Clearwater police officer parked his cruiser at the Dale Mabry gate. His cruiser cameras snapped pictures of license plates so he could run them through various police databases. The officer scanned more than 11,000 plates and found one outstanding warrant and 198 other violations.

So the burning question is ... why was a Clearwater police officer running plates in Tampa? The claim was that he was invited by military officials to check for alleged saboteurs and other bad guys.

Plate reading technology is not new. Agencies in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, Tampa and St. Petersburg have been using systems for years, much to the chagrin of civil liberties groups who point to constitutional questions.

The red light cameras are slowly fading away due to lawsuits and other challenges. Some cities got caught with their pants down when it was revealed that yellow lights were shortened so more motorists could be tapped for the $158 tickets. St. Petersburg and Tampa are the latest cities to reject the cameras.

However, the red light cameras might soon be replaced by speed cameras like those in New York City where more than 11,700 motorists have been hammered with fines totaling $585,750. The cameras are placed at various locations in Manhattan and in the city’s outer boroughs. More than a few U.S. jurisdictions are planning to install them to take advantage of a new windfall for government coffers.

Other agencies are using drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for traffic and other enforcement. Florida will not be among them thanks to legislation that bans them from being used for most law and code enforcement. However, the Federal Aviation Administration expects 30,000 commercial and government drones to be flying over the U.S. airspace within 20 years.

So, keep an eye on the speedometer and for the cop behind the billboard … or computer screen.

Thomas Michalski is a retired Tampa Bay Newspapers editor. He can be reached at
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