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Trapped 

With fewer cops on the prowl, city traffic fines spiral downward by $4.2 million in two years

As if plunging sales tax revenues weren't enough to worry about, the demise of speed traps in Colorado Springs has taken a toll: $4.2 million less revenue this year than in 2007.

After the Colorado Springs Police Department reassigned 29 officers in April 2007 to answer calls for service instead of working traffic, revenue from traffic tickets has plummeted, and it's not likely to bounce back amid a city budget crunch causing layoffs and other belt-tightening measures.

Assuming the pace continues through year's end, revenue from traffic fines will drop by 45 percent from $7.7 million in 2007 to $4.2 million this year.

It's a no-brainer to CSPD Lt. David Whitlock. The number of summonses issued is directly tied to the number of cops working the streets. In 2006, when the department was at full strength with 57 officers investigating accidents and working traffic, 83,760 tickets were issued through Nov. 8 of that year. This year, the number was 55,550. Meanwhile, calls for service have grown by 10,000, or 5 percent.

At times before officers were pulled off traffic to handle service calls, the city had more calls for service than cops to send, Whitlock says. And, he adds, "We were having issues with gangs and guns."

Working dangerous crimes involving weapons is more important than catching a speeder, he says, especially with gangs involved, so Police Chief Richard Myers moved all traffic enforcement except motorcycle officers to patrol. Later, the motorcycle unit was pared from 28 to 24, and today stands at 19, a number that won't change in 2010, Whitlock notes.

Lax enforcement can lead to more dangerous roads; Whitlock says that although injury crashes have actually declined by 10 percent, that trend won't last.

"As people get away with stuff more and more, there's going to be an erosion there," he says. "We're going to have some significant problems in our community because people will recognize we're not out there."

Whitlock emphasizes the department's goal isn't to generate revenue, but rather to make the streets safer, and Vice Mayor Larry Small says traffic fines have never been viewed as an engine for cash. He says he hopes the drop in tickets is at least in part due to people abiding by the law more frequently.

Red-light cameras will help keep tabs on drivers, but only four will be installed starting in May at the city's most dangerous intersections, with the city adding six more within a year. Whitlock says the city also plans to use portable photo radar trailers that, like red-light cameras, will catch speeders by snapping pictures of their license plates and the drivers themselves. The trailers will be rotated around the city, also starting in May.

"Traffic is still the No. 1 complaint we get from people," he says.

As traffic fines have sagged, though, parking fines have shot up by 30 percent to $777,747 through October this year, compared to $599,198 for all of 2007. The increase stems, in part, from doubling the expired meter fine to $20 (a change that kicked in on March 2, says municipal court administrator Rick Lewis), and from stepped-up parking enforcement after CSPD filled three vacant positions.

Lewis also says the court no longer dismisses parking tickets for people who appear on other traffic violations.

Meantime, money retrieved from parking meters has dropped slightly from $1.8 million two years ago, a decline parking manager Greg Warnke chalks up to the economic downturn keeping people from shopping downtown.

zubeck@csindy.com

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