Officers must enforce law, not quotas

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POLICE Chief Keith McCaskill says he ordered the force’s 1,328 officers to step up traffic enforcement on Winnipeg’s rough and tumble streets, which has led to the usual round of cynicism and suspicion that the city is out for another cash grab at the expense of motorists. In fact, there is nothing nefarious about expecting police officers to do their jobs, notwithstanding the fact that tougher enforcement logically means more revenue.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/08/2009 (4802 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

POLICE Chief Keith McCaskill says he ordered the force’s 1,328 officers to step up traffic enforcement on Winnipeg’s rough and tumble streets, which has led to the usual round of cynicism and suspicion that the city is out for another cash grab at the expense of motorists. In fact, there is nothing nefarious about expecting police officers to do their jobs, notwithstanding the fact that tougher enforcement logically means more revenue.

The issue is unavoidably linked with the controversy surrounding photo radar, specifically the belief that the inanimate system isn’t really about safety, but cold, hard cash instead. The only real link between the two matters, however, is the fact that traffic enforcement by police has declined with the rise of the machine.

The numbers tell the story: In 1999, police arrested 1,200 people for impaired driving and issued 50,000 tickets for a variety of Highway Traffic offences; by 2007, the numbers had dropped dramatically, just 500 charges for impaired driving and 24,000 traffic violations. Part of this drop can be explained by the gradual weakening of the police traffic division over the years, but some of it is related to a more relaxed attitude to enforcement by patrol officers and the cop on the beat.

Chief McCaskill clearly thinks so, which is why he issued an order to divisional commanders to remind their employees that they are police officers with a sworn duty to uphold the law. As the number of specialists and special squads has risen to deal with problems like gangs, missing persons, fraud and drug trafficking, it seems more and more police officers have developed the attitude that they don’t serve in that section, namely traffic enforcement.

Such an attitude is unacceptable, albeit not surprising. Police officers, after all, are human beings, too, and some of them will naturally turn a blind eye to a relatively minor problem if assured no one will notice.

The chief is not asking for these officers, or those on routine patrol, to interrupt an important task or investigation to hand out a ticket for making an illegal turn. He is merely reminding them that it is unusual that in the normal course of events, they never encounter an illegal highway offence that they have time to deal with.

Mr. McCaskill does not deny that revenue is an issue, but he claims, rightly, that emphasizing the financial component of enforcement is looking at the question from the wrong angle. What he is trying to do is establish performance measurements and benchmarks, which any large, complicated organization seeks to do.

Officers have not been told they must meet a certain daily or weekly quota of tickets, but those that never issue an offence notice will likely face some questions, much the way a news reporter who never files a story is apt to raise eyebrows.

The public does not need to fear unfair enforcement, since officers still have a duty to apply discretion and good judgment in enforcing the law. And the department as whole has an obligation to be balanced and forthright in its dealings with the citizenry. Any failure in those areas will raise eyebrows elsewhere.

Police have a tough job, but they are expected to do it to the best of their ability. The sight of a patrol officer ignoring a blatant road offence merely encourages disrespect for the law and the police, which is not in anyone’s interest.

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