WE HAVE PLENTY OF REASONS to discuss how police officers and the public interact, but it’s surprising that the way the subject has come up in the Town of Chatham involves asking cops to fix the town’s bungled budget.
Earlier this month the Town Board learned from its accountants that the town has $227,000 less than it needs to pay the bills for 2016. Taking a deep collective breath, town officials calculated they might be able to keep Chatham afloat financially if they could up with just $60,000.
The board appears to have responded quickly and appropriately, freezing discretionary spending and asking departments to find budget cuts. The town is also looking to raise revenue, but it can’t rob a bank because that wouldn’t be right and besides, the board, under the previous administration, already cleaned out its own reserve accounts to cover budget shortfalls in the earlier years.
Town may not raise taxes in the middle of the year, so what’s a board to do? Hold a boot drive? Open a lemonade stand? What about fines? Chatham’s got roads and some people drive too fast on those roads and if the town had a police force maybe the police it could issue enough tickets to enough speeders so to close the hole in the budget. It’s a Miracle!
Actually, the town doesn’t have its own police force. But the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office operates a countywide Road Patrol staffed by full-time deputies who are professional police officers. For a fee that pays for the deputies’ additional time and mileage, the Sheriff’s Office will assign officers to patrol specific roads in a town, including, in Chatham, the section of the Taconic State Parkway that cuts through the town. The deputies will issue tickets, some of the revenue from the tickets will go to the town and Poof! the budget hole will disappear.
Some Chatham residents think the town already has a reputation as a “speed trap”–there are village police and State Police as well as deputies–and increasing the police presence will make people avoid the area, which could hurt business. Others would like to see speed limits strictly enforced because slower traffic means safer roads for kids, pets and other drivers. Driving at a more leisurely pace might even encourage visitors to see more of what the town has to offer. Go someplace else if you want drive fast.
If the Chatham Town Board had decided to request deputies as a way of improving safety, critics could be ignored. And if more patrols did result in a revenue surplus for the town, so much the better. But using police primarily as a source of revenue raises profound questions about the role we expect law officers to play.
This is not the fault of the Sheriff’s Office. In Chatham or anywhere else, deputies will issue tickets for speeding and other violations as specified under the state Vehicle and Traffic Law. But when police patrol roads based on revenue potential of the site rather than safety, that choice devalues the work that police are trained to do.
Then there’s the issue of plea bargains, which are deals in court to lower the level of the offense: for example, a driver pleads to a vehicle violation rather than to the costlier charge of speeding. With plea deals town often gets to keep all the revenue from a fine levied for the lower offense while it has to share the fine with the state for speeding tickets. But the amount of the fine is smaller. Has the town calculated how many additional tickets it needs deputies to write and what type of pleas judges would have to accept before its books are balanced? Will standards change to meet revenue targets?
Town court fines can generate handsome profits for some communities. A 2009 report by the State Comptroller’s Office found that the Albany suburb of Colonie made $2.5 million in revenue that year, the third highest amount in the state. You can see why Chatham yielded to the temptation to turn to ticket revenue.
If extra patrols by deputies would make the town safer and solvent, that’s worth the price… as soon as Chatham can afford it. But asking police to use their authority to bail the town out of its fiscal crisis distorts and trivializes police work. It threatens to erode public trust in police officers–a trust that’s essential to civil society. No community can afford to let that happen.