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City of Poulsbo probes ticketing policies after revenue decline

POULSBO — City officials are pointing to proactive policing and a rise in offending motorists opting for community service as reasons for a falloff in traffic ticket revenue.

The city expects to raise $49,000 from traffic infractions in 2011, roughly $13,000 less than is expected by the end of this year, said city Finance Director Debbie Booher. In past years, the city has earned anywhere from $69,000 to $78,000 from traffic tickets written by its police.

But violators are opting for community service as an alternative penalty, which can cut monetary fines by half or more. That, combined with a surge of preventative efforts from Poulsbo Police, is reason for the decreasing revenue, some leaders say.

Others suggest those trends don’t account for such a significant shift. Their concern has prompted an internal review of ticketing practices at the city.

“The statistics are down, so the question becomes, why are they down?” said Mayor Becky Erickson.

She emphasized the effectiveness of Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving, or COPPS, a program put in place just under two years ago by Police Chief Dennis Swiney.

The program engages officers in distinct beats, allowing them to become more familiar with the issues and concerns of specific neighborhoods to help prevent problems.

“A police force should never be a revenue generator,” Erickson said. “What they are here for is to make sure people are safe in their homes and the laws are abided by ... They have a very difficult job and they do it remarkably well.”

Swiney said officers have a certain amount of discretion when choosing whether to issue a traffic violation. He said the COPPS program allows the department to focus its efforts in areas where there are a high number of incidents or complaints.

“It’s easy to react to calls or react to problems when they occur,” he said, “but my desire, my intent, is to be a little more proactive.”

Each month officer records are reviewed to ensure they are performing at the same level as their peers. Officers have no quotas to meet, Swiney said.

The department has lost two patrol positions since 2008 and its number of reserve officers has dwindled from more than a dozen to three.

Tickets down, community service up

Swiney said the court, like the police department, is an intregal part of the process.

Traffic infractions filed with the court have decreased in recent years. Roughly 1,500 were filed in both 2005 and 2006. About 1,000 were filed in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, 787 were filed. As of September of this year, 530 infractions have been processed, according to court administrator Linda Baker.

Municipal Judge Jeff Tolman said the courts aren’t responsible for the number of tickets issued, but once a violation enters the system it can be handled in several ways. Offenders may pay a ticket, contest a ticket, request a mitigation hearing to have the fine reduced, or pay a fee and have the ticket deferred so long as their record remains clean.

Like the police officers issuing the tickets, Tolman has a certain amount of discretion in enforcing those citations. He can reduce a fine or postpone sentencing.

Tolman said the number of those choosing community service to have their fine reduced is up 25 percent over 2009. The increase in traffic in Poulsbo has left less room for speeders, but the addition of new stop signs installed around town has upped the amount of tickets for failure to stop, he said.

Some members of the Poulsbo City Council suggested driver behavior overall is unlikely to improve enough to warrant such a decline in violations.

Councilwoman Linda Berry-Maraist said the rise in population over the past five years isn’t accounted for in the number of infractions. She said she still receives complaints regarding speeding.

“I don’t believe that suddenly the speeding problem has evaporated,” she said.

Councilman Dale Rudolph said he was concerned about the departure from historical enforcement trends.

“Something’s changed, and do we agree with the change?” he asked.

Councilman Jeff Bauman said revenue shouldn’t be the measure of success for law enforcement. Whether or not traffic operates safely is “the real test,” Bauman said.

“I personally like the idea of accomplishing the goal with less force, if that can be done,” he said.

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