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Commentary

A Catch-22 when cops exist to serve and protect – and to ticket

Rod Watson

This is what it's like dealing with the Catch-22 of living in low- or moderate-income neighborhoods preyed on by thugs: You need more police protection, yet more police can mean more tickets that consume desperately needed money.

It's the fiscal version of "stop and frisk," the illegal policing practice that helped derail Michael Bloomberg's presidential bid even though he tried to disavow the tactic he once embraced as New York City mayor.

Now a coalition of community groups is highlighting the Buffalo version: Traffic tickets that could disproportionately take money out of neighborhoods least able to pay at a time when fallout from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic mean people need all of the money they can get.

The groups want Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Common Council to reassess the $3.1 million in ticketing revenue – up nearly $400,000 over two years – included in the mayor's proposed 2020-21 budget. While ticketing may appear race-neutral on its face, the reality of where most crime occurs could dictate where most of that money will come from. As the groups put it in a letter to city leaders: "if the Buffalo Police Department is focusing more patrols in poor black neighborhoods, it follows that it would also be issuing more traffic tickets in those neighborhoods."

Along with a second look at the budgeted revenue, they also want data mapping where tickets are issued. The groups suspect most "are issued in predominantly black neighborhoods and for matters that are not related to violations that could cause 'traffic fatalities or severe injuries,'” citing language from the Traffic Violations Agency mission statement. They want the city to revamp its "approach to traffic fines and fees to eliminate any remaining structural racism in their design."

The letter was emailed Monday, which hasn't given the Brown administration a lot of time to respond while also trying to prepare for the local reopening that Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in Buffalo the same day. However, the administration did note by email that "any revenue estimates are based on the addition of electronic school zone speed cameras or electronic bus arm cameras and not on increased ticketing by any Buffalo police officer."

The only problem with that explanation is that the roughly $200,000 increase projected for the coming fiscal year is about the same as this year's increase, when no school safety measures were in place for most of the year.

"People are hurting right now. The last thing they need is an additional $75 or $100 for a ticket," said the Rev. George Nicholas of the African American Health Equity Task Force, one of 15 groups that signed the letter along with organizations ranging from the Western New York Law Center and the National Federation for Just Communities of WNY to VOICE Buffalo and the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Nicholas said the task force got involved because economics is one of the social determinants of health. Fines disproportionately levied on black and brown communities for broken tail lights and the like drain resources. And when the driver chooses to pay the electric bill or buy food instead, that can have a compounding effect when it causes the vehicle to be impounded, which can then cost someone their job.

If safety is the goal, the city could employ traffic-calming measures like speed bumps, lane narrowing and lane shifts to slow drivers, instead of reaching into their pockets, said Jalonda Hill of the Fair Fines and Fees Coalition, which also wants the city to rescind 13 new fees it imposed two years ago that can be tacked onto tickets.

Brown's proposed budget – which includes $65 million in hoped-for aid in a federal coronavirus rescue package – has yet to be voted on by the Council. The normal deadline would be May 22, but lawmakers want to see if that federal money materializes before finalizing a budget, said Council President Darius G. Pridgen, noting the governor's executive order has extended deadlines and also that the Council has sought legal counsel.

But before acting on the budget – whenever that is – Pridgen said they absolutely will "take a look at what the letter requests," noting that underrepresented communities should not bear a disproportionate burden and that one Council member had raised some of the same issues.

No doubt, when the Council takes this up, the administration will respond in more detail. But the circumstantial evidence is damning. In fact, residents might buy the administration's explanation, if not for a history of trying to tap motorists for "voluntary" contributions that can take the place of tax hikes.

Who can forget The Buffalo News story showing that tickets surged right after the city created the Traffic Violations Agency in 2015?

Or that this is the administration that wanted to install red light cameras to ticket drivers who try to beat the signal?

Then there were the police checkpoints in high-crime neighborhoods that were supposed to nab hardened criminals. In the process, they resulted in so many traffic tickets that three legal justice organizations filed a discrimination lawsuit two years ago alleging that the city used the checkpoints “to harvest revenue from poor, Black and Latino residents.” When he took over in early 2018, Police Commissioner Byron C. Lockwood disbanded the unit that conducted the checkpoints.

Last year, The News documented that Buffalo police over a three-year period issued more tickets for the extremely dangerous offense of driving with tinted windows than for any other traffic infraction – and more such tickets than any other municipal police department in the state outside of New York City.

And of course – abetted by school officials – we now have the administration's effort to impose a daylong 15 mph speed limit around up to 20 schools, even those on main thoroughfares and even though some other municipalities make it a more reasonable 25 mph and limit the hours of enforcement.

Given this pattern, it's hard to give the administration the benefit of the doubt when judging whether traffic enforcement is being used more as a revenue generator than a safety enhancement.

Rather, in the court of public opinion, it looks guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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