There were no big surprises in the recent disclosure Winnipeg police spent $860,000 in overtime for traffic enforcement in a six-month period to boost ticket revenue.
The service said last year it would cost about $1 million in overtime to issue tickets worth $1.4 million, for a net profit of $400,000, over and above the normal haul. Civic officials wanted more revenue, and police delivered.
The exercise, however, raises several questions: Are crackdowns on traffic violations justified? Were more important priorities sacrificed on the altar of revenue generation, and are police managing their overtime budgets efficiently?
Police frequently target certain crimes or safety hazards for special enforcement, usually because a problem has gotten out of hand. Special squads, for example, have been used to crack down on street prostitution, while other operations have targeted people who talk on their cellphones while driving, or who don’t wear their seatbelts.
Street gangs and organized crime have also come under special attention, which usually requires extra overtime and the shifting of resources from one unit to another. After a measure of success, some troops are redeployed.
Traffic violations, too, also require spurts of intense enforcement to remind motorists to obey speed limits and the rules of the road. The police service has been criticized in the past for demanding officers issue more tickets, but all they are really being asked to do is their jobs.
While police issued 50,000 tickets under the Highway Traffic Act in 1999, they could only find some 24,000 lawbreakers by 2007. The decrease has been linked to the increasing specialization of the police service. Members who worked in fraud, vice, intelligence or missing persons seemed to think issuing a ticket for an illegal turn was somebody’s else’s job.
In fact, if every officer was doing his or her job, it might not be necessary to ring up such huge overtime bills to enforce simple laws.
Police overtime costs have been an issue for decades and several civic audits have tried to get a grip on the problem. The city budgeted $6.4 million for overtime this year, about $1 million less than previous years, but it’s not clear if the target can be met.
A pending operational review of the service will undoubtedly examine the department’s overtime policies as one place where efficiencies might be found.
Police operations today are a delicate balancing act as priorities and public expectations shift and evolve. But cracking down on bad drivers will never be out of date, since it relates directly to basic public safety.