|Speed traps are for the money, er, for the children
by Howie Carr, Harold Columnist, Wednesday, March 5, 2003
What are the nine nicest words a police officer can say to you?
"I'm going to give you a warning this time."
Alas, as local aid shrivels, those are words the pothole-dodging motorists of the commonwealth may be hearing less and less in the months ahead.
Is it beyond the realm of possibility that even now, in city and town halls across the commonwealth, politicians are chatting with their police chiefs, and the conversation is going something like this?
Mayor: "Holy bleep, they're talking about cutting local aid 20 percent - it's so bad, Chief, that I'm laying off an alderman's nephew. If it gets any worse, I may have to lay off your son."
Chief: "How about some speed traps?"
It sure beats putting a Proposition 2 1/2 override on the ballot. Nobody's voting to increase their own taxes these days. Plus, when you turn your town into a speed trap, you can always claim you're doing it for public safety . . . for the children.
Which brings us to the City of Newton, where you won't be hearing the nine magic words for a while if Police Chief Jose Cordero has his way. On Monday, among the administrative messages to the force was one concerning the "directed patrols" in areas where traffic problems have been diagnosed.
In the missive, the chief uses the word "complaint." The most common synonym for complaint is "ticket."
"A complaint should be issued," the memo states, "due to the fact that these locations have been identified as accident causing. Warnings will not alter the behavior or driver attitude of these violators. Complaints must be issued in order to achieve our objective of a safer driving environment."
I repeat, it's for the children.
A call was placed to Chief Cordero, and he denied he is turning the Newton PD into a gang of highwaymen.
"Let me be honest and blunt," he said. "If you ask me what a ticket costs, I do not have a clue, nor do I care. . . . They were going out, stopping the motorists and issuing them warnings. The percentage of warnings was too high."
Too high? Think about it, if you're a local pol, studying last year's statistics from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. In 2002, cops wrote 700,000 warnings - 700,000 wasted opportunities for revenue enhancement. Somewhere, Medford Mayor Michael McGlynn is weeping. Ditto, Mayor John Barrett of North Adams.
Last year, motorists were fined $55 million for moving violations in Massachusetts, and $30.6 million of that was kicked back to the cities and the towns.
But in fiscal year 2002, the Registry reports Newton only got $117,448 as its split of the loot collected in fines. Obviously, Newton is not nearly safe enough. With a little more effort by the uniforms, Newton could make . . . $250,000. Or maybe a half-million. Then Newton would be really safe. We have to do it for . . . well, you know who we're doing it for.
Some Newton cops are not happy about the ticket frenzy. One of them faxed me, "We are nothing but revenue officers, and the mayor is going along with this."
That would be David Cohen, career pol, former state rep.
The cop continued: "This is what goes on in New York City. Well, this is Newton, Mass., and what this chief is doing to the citizens is wrong."
Chief Cordero responds, "We started these directed patrols last April, but they don't want to write tickets because it's a change."
Maybe, I suggested, some cops feel that when you figure in the insurance surcharges, getting a ticket ends up costing a driver maybe two or three grand over the next six years. Perhaps, I said, your officers don't want to "screw" somebody for, say, running a stop sign.
"If someone puts my life in danger, they may be screwed, as you put it, but they should consider the consequences of their actions."
The cops: "We have pointed out to this man that the state law allows the officer to make the decision on a warning ticket or a money ticket."
The chief: ``The reality is, they do have discretion. My job is to make sure they do not abuse that discretion."
I drive in Newton every day, and I would just like to say to the Newton cops, if, while trying to avoid one of your Grand Canyon-sized potholes, I inadvertently cross a solid line and you decide to pull me over, please feel free to "abuse" your discretion.
Please write me a warning. Abuse me, please.
Howie Carr's radio show can be heard every weekday afternoon on WRKO AM 680, WHYN AM 560, WGAN AM 560, WEIM AM 1280, WXTK 95.1 FM or online at howiecarr.org.
(Howie Carr is a columnist for The Boston Herald.)
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