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Speeding ticket binge in Buffalo as a lesson in civil rights

“Police officers from all ranks told us that revenue generation is stressed heavily within the police department, and that the message comes from City leadership. … The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect … many officers appear to see some residents … less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

It’s as if Buffalo – another poor city – never heard of that or other damning quotes from the U.S. Justice Department’s report on how traffic tickets were used as a revenue-raiser that entrapped poor residents in a virtual debtors’ prison in Ferguson, Mo.

Buffalo officials vehemently protest any comparison or the suggestion that they’re using tickets to help balance the budget after creating their own violations agency July 1, then plea-bargaining offenses down to parking tickets so the city can keep the revenue from fines instead of sharing it with the state.

But with that financial incentive, Buffalo cops – surprise! – went on a ticket-writing spree, issuing 10,000 more the last half of 2015, compared with the previous year, according to data obtained by Buffalo News Staff Reporter Matthew Spina.

The revenue grab makes the state’s ridiculous decision to downgrade the entire Scajaquada Expressway to 30 mph following the tragic death of a youngster – instead of simply installing safety barriers – even more galling. To his credit, Mayor Byron Brown did not support that much of an overreaction. Still, cops made some 1,200 traffic stops on the former expressway. Cha-ching!

Granted, the pleas – already money-raisers in many suburbs – save drivers points on their licenses. Nor does anyone want dangerous drivers ignored. And officials note that other neighborhoods asked for crackdowns after the Scajaquada binge. Traffic enforcement also can be a tool for getting gangbangers off the street – a benefit to everyone.

Still, for an administration that brags about not raising taxes – which spread the burden of paying for government far more evenly – it’s hard to ignore the political benefits of the ticketing spike that just happened to occur after the new agency opened.

The city already has sent out notices that could lead to the suspension of 4,400 driver’s licenses, a sanction that can make life – including keeping a job – harder. Parking Enforcement Commissioner Kevin Helfer says that it needn’t come to that, laying out a multistep process over more than three months in which drivers can respond. “So they have every opportunity not to get suspended,” he said.

Still, that’s what often happened in Ferguson, as low-income drivers who couldn’t come up with the money often feared the consequences of responding while knowing they couldn’t pay.

Of course, there is one significant difference between Ferguson and Buffalo: One is a majority-black city that was preyed upon by white leaders, while the other is a mostly white city with significant black leadership, taking race out of the equation.

In fact, the ticketing spike has the potential to be a great educational and civil rights tool. It could help whites understand what it is like being African-American, as DWB takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of Driving While Black, it will now mean Driving While in Buffalo – and potentially affect anyone.