SUNDAY EDITION | Is low police morale to blame for drop in traffic tickets?
One judge referred to current police morale as a “Blue Flu,” saying officers are unhappy and showing their displeasure with a work slowdown.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For reasons that remain murky, drivers are far less likely to get a traffic ticket in Louisville in 2016 than any year in recent memory.
Traffic citations issued by Louisville Metro Police officers have dropped to 38,235 so far this year, from 64,264 in all of 2014 -- a 41 percent decrease in just two years.
As a result, Jefferson District Court will eliminate Friday night traffic court downtown starting in January, as there is no longer a need to hear cases five nights a week.
The decline coincides with a rise in fatal wrecks. As of December 1, 79 people died in crashes handled by LMPD, compared with 71 last year and 54 in 2014, according to department statistics.
“That’s a precipitous decline in citations being written during a period of time which is the most dangerous period I’ve ever seen in driving an automobile in this country,” Jefferson County Attorney Michael O’Connell said in an interview. “We’re all concerned about it.”
What has prompted the sharp decline in tickets is not an easy answer, outside of one obvious explanation.
With a record number of murders this year, the department has put more of a priority on dealing with violent crime, shifting some officers away from patrolling.
But some judges, lawyers and officers say the decline also represents a form of protest by a beleaguered department.
“I would have to say it’s almost entirely because of the morale being at an all-time low,” said one officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
One judge referred to it as a “Blue Flu,” saying officers are unhappy and showing their displeasure with a work slowdown.
Among the reasons given to WDRB for the low morale:
• Confidence in Chief Steve Conrad and his leadership has dropped in the wake of issues such as schedule changes and a rearrangement of officers; concerns there are too few officers; and a belief the chief has not supported police in reacting to criticism from city officials and the media.
In a letter dated Nov. 15, Fraternal Order of Police President Dave Mutchler wrote to Mayor Greg Fischer, in part:
"Members lack confidence in the leadership of LMPD and these members continue to be disappointed over and over again." Part of the frustration stems from Conrad eliminating the department's FLEX units, which were focused on tackling violent crime and drugs in each division.
• The “Ferguson effect,” or the increased scrutiny and criticism of police following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Also, in the wake of recent police shootings, officers are worried about their safety even during seemingly routine traffic stops.
• The recent implementation of body cameras, making officers nervous about all interactions being recorded and subject to review by supervisors and citizens.
“Your next stop may go bad and then you may be screwed even if you do nothing wrong,” said another officer who asked to remain anonymous. “Some feel the department will not back them up if something (goes) wrong or they use bad language on body cameras.”
• Some police and court officials, including long-time District Judge Sean Delahanty, said they believe officers are protesting O’Connell’s Drive Safe Louisville program, which allows traffic offenders to pay a fee, take an online course and get their case dismissed without paying court costs. The office has made nearly $2 million on the program. (The Circuit Court Clerk’s office was given about $621,000 and the vendor has made more than $1 million.)
“It’s a fundraising scheme for the county attorney’s office … and a private vendor,” which police officers resent, said Delahanty, who last year ruled the program was unconstitutional. That ruling has been appealed. Most judges are allowing offenders to participate in the program.
Delahanty said officers have told him the program has taken away their discretion, creating a one-size-fits all approach to writing tickets.
“They no longer participate in the administration of justice,” he said.
Before the program began about three years ago, police could speak with prosecutors about how a traffic case would be handled. Attorneys acknowledge that sometimes people were treated differently based on the way they responded to officers.
“While two people might be charged with speeding 18 miles over, if one person cusses the officer … and the other offender” is polite and admits wrongdoing, “the officers would like discretion to have those two people have a different sort of justice,” Delahanty said. “Now the Drive Safe Louisville program eliminates that.”
O’Connell initially told WDRB News that the idea of a protest of the Drive Safe Louisville program “doesn’t make any sense to me,” as offenders were already allowed to attend a state offered driver education program before his office started its own.
But he then acknowledged that some officers may have a reason not to support the program.
“I’ll say this, would there be some within this system that would like to have discretion to go in and ask a judge to dismiss a traffic ticket for a friend or a family member?” O’Connell said. “Are those instances around? They used to be, a lot. They’re not anymore and that has upset some people in this system who believe that’s the way we ought to operate.”
And he said, if there was some sort of protest by police, he hopes that “it would cease immediately.”
“I’m sensitive to law enforcement’s needs and what they do, but the overarching obligation is public safety and if you’re not going to address that at a level that meets the needs of a large urban community … then there is something wrong.”
As for the police department, officials wouldn’t speculate as to whether some officers may be protesting the Drive Safe Louisville program, but noted that they are expected to do their job regardless of what happens after a ticket is written.
“It’s not my position to give an opinion on which program is the best,” said Lt. Joe Seelye, LMPD Traffic Commander. “What I will say is that whatever we choose to go with in our partnership with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office is I would hope that it would focus on changing driver behavior because people are dying on our roadways.”
Asked about the “Blue Flu” theory, Seelye said he has been with the department for 20 years and it is not unusual for there to be periods of low morale.
“I think morale is struggling, but I don’t think it’s because of the administration,” Seelye said. “I think it’s because of what you see across the country” with the fatal shootings and media criticism. “A strong leadership will help morale. And that’s what officers are looking for.”
Seelye also acknowledged that some officers are not yet comfortable with body cameras.
“Nobody wears body cams except for police,” said Seelye, who added that he supports the cameras. “Where it becomes a concern sometimes is we are human beings - just like the doctors, the lawyers, the judges, the prosecutors, the media – and everyone has side conversations and that’s where the struggle comes in.”
Police now have to pay more attention to what they say, their facial expressions and temperament, Seelye said.
“There was a concern for everybody going into this,” he added. But he added that body camera video has helped clear officers from baseless complaints.
However, police also say that 2016 has been an especially violent year – a record number of murders and rising fatal wrecks – and feel some resources have been shifted to put more of a priority on those areas.
“When you look at where we are putting our resources, we try to put them where they are most valuable,” Seelye said. “Some of the focus has been shifted to other areas. … I wouldn’t turn down additional resources but however I understand that there’s priorities in line and the chief’s office will determine” that.
Mutchler, head of the FOP, did not return repeated phone messages seeking comment.
One officer who spoke to WDRB said it’s not just traffic tickets that are down, but that all “self-initiated activity” has dropped in the last year or two.
“I'd say between Drive Safe Louisville, body cameras, the fact that the chief doesn't have our back and … overall culture of hatred toward police, what is the incentive to be proactive?”
Copyright 2016 by WDRB Media. All rights reserved.