In my last post I charted police department collision injury data to show the extent to which collision injuries continue to mount in Beverly Hills. From 2008 (when the department made data available) though last year, police report that 3,805 people have been injured on city streets in collisions. Most concerning, the data show that the most protected travelers, auto occupants, suffered record-high injuries – so many that it pushed the overall injury totals to record highs too. In this post I crunch police data for citations to show that enforcement of traffic laws has withered on the vine.
All Major Traffic Enforcement Trends Show a Steep Decline Since 2008
For your consideration here are the enforcement trends from 2008 through 2016. I plugged nine years of Beverly Hills Police Department data (download the reports) into a spreadsheet and generated some charts to visualize the trends. When 2017 data becomes available in February I will follow up with a year-end analysis of that data too.
The number of overall signed citations has plummeted since 2008. Last year officers issued half as many citations for speed, stop-sign, signal, pedestrian and cell-phone violations than they did in 2008. Indeed they issued the fewest tickets for those offenses in total during 2016 than at any time since the police began to report the data to the Traffic and Parking Commission. This chart makes it clear.
I presume that as grants for targeted cell phone enforcement diminished so did the department’s efforts. That’s often the way it works: grants fund enforcement campaigns but, once the money runs out, so does the enforcement. The result: inconsistent enforcement priorities and, as we see, very few citations for cell phone use in recent years. (See note #1 below.)
From the peak year (2011) the number of cell phone citations issued annually decreased by about 85%. In recent years the number of citations decreased by about 20% on average every year even from relatively low levels. The takeaway: where officers had once written nearly 100 tickets each day, today they write only 12 or so on any given day. Yet diminished interest in enforcement coincides with what seems to be an increased prevalence of handheld phone use (my anecdotal observation finds).
Moreover, the drop in citations comes as US DOT has issued warnings about injuries and fatalities that result from distracted driving. The overall trend downward is set to continue into 2017: year-to-date data (though October) show that citations are down another 15% from last year.
Red-Light Runners Can Violate the Law With Impunity
Citations for cell phone violations is among the most steep and consistent declines among all categories. Yet one one key traffic enforcement category rivals it: the collapse in citations for running red lights. Between 2008 and 2016 citations for running a red light dropped by a whopping 83%. Eighty-three percent!
So steep has been the decline that citations in the category dropped by half from 2011 to 2012 and then again by half the following year. To put that in perspective, officers in 2008 issued five red-light tickets every day but last year such citations averaged not even a single ticket per day despite the outrageous prevalence of drivers running red lights.
Arguably the reason why we have high-and-rising collision injuries overall is because we see lax enforcement of traffic laws. But divers who run red lights – especially when speed is excessive – present a clear-and-present danger to all road users. But they seem to be injuring other drivers more than ever as my chart of auto-occupant injuries shows.
It seems clear that these trends are connected: fewer signal violators nabbed probably means more injurious collisions at signaled intersections where speeds are greater. And that means more injuries among our best-protected road users. That should trouble both our police and our Traffic and Parking commissioners but they appear untroubled.
Patrol Officers Issue Fewer Citations
Both patrol officers and traffic division officers write tickets. As I understand it, the traffic division is charged with enforcement of the traffic laws while the patrol division is simply out on patrol looking for law-breakers. What I don’t understand is why patrol officers are finding fewer traffic law-breakers than ever before.
This chart shows the annual tally of citations issued by patrol officers (exclusive of traffic division citations) since 2008. The overall tally has fallen by 55% between 2008 and 2016.
Not only did officers on patrol last year issue fewer than half the tickets they did in 2008; the year-over-year declines can be quite steep too. Last year patrol officers wrote one-third fewer tickets than they did in 2015, for example, which amounts to just six tickets a day for any offense. So in a city of 40,000 people that swells to more than double that on any weekday our officers can find only six violations? How many of those were issued for signal violations? Probably zero.
The chart not only shows the absolute decline in patrol tickets; it also shows clearly the relative decline: that is, the proportion of patrol-issued citations out of all signed citations. Patrol citations is a shrinking proportion.
What is the impact of so few patrol citations? I expect that drivers can brazenly run red lights without the fear of getting pulled over. Even when a black-and-white police cruiser sits waiting at the same stoplight these drivers are rarely if ever pulled over. (Indeed several times I have watched as drivers blow through a red signal but the police cruiser right there in front of me at the scene gives no chase.) What’s more, not once in 15 years here have I seen a driver ever pulled over for running a red light. The slight chance that it might happen looks ever more slight today.
Traffic Division Numbers are Up
Here is the good news: the traffic division has issued more citations in recent years than a few years ago, but it’s not translating into higher numbers across enforcement categories. It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about the traffic division numbers, though. There are citations for violations outside of the categories broken out in the BHPD monthly report; indeed the monthly tally for traffic division citations adds up to many more than are broken out across the major traffic offenses like signal, pedestrian, speed, and right-of-way violations.
Despite the late increase in traffic division enforcement, I can’t recall targeted campaign to catch those who run red lights. Not to say it hasn’t happened, but I don’t recall a press release announcing one, and I’ve never seen such a campaign in action. Not even on South Beverly! The area is a designated pedestrian district yet crosswalks there feel very hazardous. (And they are! This year a pedestrian lost his or her life there.)
The question is why we don’t we more targeted enforcement campaigns. Or do they exist and we simply don’t know they’re happening? Occasionally we see them, as we did after a Rexford Drive resident complained to the Courier about right-of-way violations near Beverly Vista. Soon after, there were motor cops on the; corner looking for violators.
But what about red-light stings at intersections where the most serious injuries probably occur? We just don’t see the targeted enforcement for that violation.
Instead our police department outsources red-light enforcement to automated cameras. Easy! This year red light cameras are on track to issue a near-record number of citations at the relatively few intersections where they do operate. Last year our robocops issued eighty-two times as many signal violation tickets as did human officers. (Read more about red light cameras in note #2 below.)
What about that the later surge in traffic division citations? Years 2015 and 2016? I think there’s a story there. For years BHPD offered various excuses for lax traffic enforcement: officers were injured or out sick; the ranks were depleted by retirements; officers were on diplomatic duty; and tough hiring standards allowed few officer candidates to make the cut. All were dubious but maybe there is merit to them. Perhaps putting those challenges behind has allowed the department to get back to work and hopefully the numbers will continue to rise. But be that as it may, the overall trend is clear: in 2016 the traffic division’s officers issued just one-third as many tickets as they did in 2008. And year-to-date data suggest that 2017 will show another decline.
I welcome any insight as to why signed citations vary so much year-to-year when law-breaking does not take a breather.
Fewer Hit-and-Runs is the Only Real Bright Spot
I want to close my analysis of Beverly Hills Police Department data on a positive note: hit-and-run collisions are on a clear downward trend. Here the trend is going in the proper direction!
Hopefully 2015 was an anomaly and we will see the decline continue, from last year’s 27% drop from the year prior to this year’s anticipated further drop of 15%. Where a hit-and-run once occurred every day on average in 2008, today we’re seeing three per week. Better!
But how can police drive down that number even more? That’s not so clear. For one thing, we simply see too many collisions in Beverly Hills. We don’t even know how many because injury data doesn’t capture non-injury collisions (of course). So the tally of total collisions is unknown as is the magnitude of the problem. Not surprisingly, if we don’t have the data then we can’t see what fraction of collisions found perpetrators running off afterward.
In light of the limited data and the nature of the crime, perhaps the best strategy is a campaign to emphasize our individual responsibility to other road users and to society as a whole. The hitch: many people who pass through Beverly Hills are not residents. I’d wager that those who do flee a collision most likely don’t live here. Anyway, the challenge is not only to reach them but to persuade them.
The Traffic and Parking commission and the Beverly Hills Police Department must coordinate on a response. Traffic and Parking Commission is the only oversight body we have when it comes to traffic. It must be a part of the solution. And the department must step up in more than a symbolic way: we need officials to coordinate on a plan or program to reduce collisions, injuries and deaths on Beverly Hills streets.
The monthly traffic report should provide context and analysis. Interested commissioners want to see trends rather than struggle to find patterns in a matrix of monthly figures. Generating at-a-glance charts for key indicators is a no-brainer!
Put a trained transportation planner or staff analyst on the job. Let officers collect the data but somebody outside the department should work it. The commissioners will be able to more readily engage with the analyst if she is staff-side. Save the higher-level coordination for the monthly report or perhaps regular meetings between Traffic and Parking liaisons and police brass.
Ensure that any officer who delivers the monthly traffic report is able to answer questions. Can the department representative say something substantive about injury totals and trends? Where are the collision hotspots? Today we hear BHPD answer about department operations but there no context of insight provided to go with the monthly report’s data.
Identify data categories that would help our understanding but that are not currently included in the report. We can start with total collision figures and collision locations. These should be systematically reported. Unlike other departments, Beverly Hills publishes no crime or crash data for public consumption (aside from the occasional management report that never reaches residents). A public-facing department would be a positive change.
We all need to be comfortable talking about numbers. Law enforcement is data-drive; if the commission (and the public) are to keep an eye on it we need basic numeracy. Comfort with numbers is necessary to understand trends, distinguish patterns from anomalies, and, most important, frame pertinent questions for the department.
The city needs the department at the table. It’s one thing to crunch the data and talk anecdotally in commission about problems. We need law enforcement solutions. But we’ve heard too many pro-forma monthly reports that wastes everybody’s time. If the department can make a priority of coordinating with the commission on real traffic problems, then we would be getting somewhere.
Lastly, this commission should be cognizant of its capacity, and responsibility, to oversee general traffic conditions. To date that has largely been mission deferred. We have as well-equipped a commission as ever and a new Chair is coming in January. Let’s call it a new start!
In sum I’m cautiously optimistic that things will change. Our commissioners are asking more questions than before and the monthly traffic report format may evolve into something more useful. All to the good. If my charts and the elementary analysis behind them suggest the opportunities for action, then my effort to generate them will have been worth it.
Note #1. Cell phone citations appeared in 2009 the year after California banned the use of handheld cell phones. Over the first three years, the department issued nearly 3,000 tickets every year for the violation. That was more than for any other other violation. Soon, though, BHPD enforcement priorities evidently shifted. Ever since, the data show, there was a marked and persistent decline in law enforcement interest. The drop is representative of a continuing overall decline in traffic enforcement under the new Police Chief (at least as represented by citations) who took office in March of 2016.
Note #2. The decline in red-light citations (and the diminished enforcement priority it reflects) is only half of the story. The other is the city’s growing use of automated red-light cameras to catch scofflaws. After a brief hiatus in 2015, when Beverly Hills transitioned from a corrupt vendor to our current automated camera vendor, Xerox, today automated red-light camera citations are back on the upswing: year-to-date data for 2017 show the total may surpass twenty thousand (!) which is a 7-year high. If so many drivers choose to run a red light where they are guaranteed to get a ticket, how might they drive at intersections without any camera?