Wrong numbers focus of Florida Highway Patrol’s ticket-quota scandal

I’m having a hard time getting worked up about the ticket-quota scandal unfolding in the Florida Highway Patrol.

It started this summer with an email written by FHP Maj. Mark Welch. He explained that he expected his troopers patrolling an eight-county section of North Florida, including Interstate 10, to ticket motorists at a higher rate.

“The patrol wants to see two citations an hour,” the email said. “This is not a quota; It’s what we are asking you to do to support this important initiative.”

The initiative is something called the Statewide Overtime Action Response (SOAR) program, which was started in 2002 to address the increase in crashes on Florida’s highways. SOAR authorizes troopers to work overtime if they do traffic enforcement in high-priority areas.

Troopers get time-and-a-half pay when they’re working SOAR hours, and while doing it, are expected to aggressively enforce traffic laws. Their overtime pay comes from a $5 million-a-year pot of taxpayer money allocated by the Legislature.

So Welch’s email was basically a reminder to troopers that if they’re being paid overtime to work SOAR they ought to be writing at least two tickets an hour. At the time, the SOAR-deployed troopers in Welch’s area were writing tickets at a clip of about 1.3 citations per hour.

Writing two traffic tickets an hour on the interstate doesn’t sound all that aggressive to me.

I’m guessing that even heavily distracted person can spot two wildly dangerous drivers on I-95 in any given hour, and still have 40 minutes left to do a crossword puzzle, play Candy Crush, or eat a panini in the emergency lane.

But Welch’s words sounded like a quota, even though he said it wasn’t a quota. And “quota” is a dirty word when it comes to traffic tickets, and one prohibited by Florida law.

The quota talk came at a time when the stingy Florida Legislature and governor had finally coughed up a 5 percent pay raise for FHP troopers, who are the lowest paid state troopers in the country.

The starting pay for an FHP trooper has been about $34,000 and it hadn’t budged in 12 years. By comparison, highway patrol troopers in Texas start at $73,000 a year.

The low pay for FHP troopers has created partially empty recruiting classes and high turnover to higher-paying local and county departments.

As a result, there are about 240 vacancies in the nearly 2,000-member FHP force. So even though the state’s population and highway crashes have been increasing, the number of citations written has been falling every year.

Citations written by FHP troopers have gone from 947,000 in 2011 to 742,000 last year — a drop of more than 20 percent. Which makes Welch’s memo seem even more benign.

But the scandal got worse when another memo surfaced this summer that showed troopers in Miami-Dade who met their ticket-writing goals in March, got a paid weekend off in April.

“Sergeants, please get with these members and schedule their weekend pass,” the memo said.

That tickets-for-time-off practice has since been stopped. And Terry Rhodes, the executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, has been assuring the public that ticket quotas won’t be tolerated.

“Getting in the black and tan to patrol the roadways is expected,” she wrote. “Helping to educate and assist motorists is expected. Protecting lives is expected.

“Quotas are not part of our mission operationally or legally.”

It’s not the first time that Rhodes has had to address concerns over the SOAR program. Three years ago, she ordered an audit of the overtime program to see if troopers were abusing it by not actually doing the aggressive patrolling they were being paid to do.

That audit, which looked at the 36 troopers with the most SOAR hours, concluded that a dozen of them were billing for traffic enforcement overtime while they were actually at home, eating at restaurants, or visiting friends.

Now, that seems more like a scandal to me.

Being paid extra and then not doing your job sounds a whole lot worse to me than being paid extra to do your job.

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