City Councilor John Eagleton has run a gauntlet of criticism lately for an unpopular suggestion he made at a council committee meeting last week during a discussion about how to beef up police manpower and how to pay for it.
Issue more traffic tickets.
Eagleton said the city could bring in at least another $11.5 million per year simply by stricter enforcement of Tulsa's traffic laws.
He said he arrived at this figure by considering that patrolmen issue, on average, about 20 traffic citations per day, each ticket costing the average wayward driver about $120.
The average patrolman works 240 days per year, so, if the city put 20 more police officers on the streets to go after traffic offenders, they would pay for themselves and then some, Eagleton reasoned.
According to Officer Jason Willingham, spokesman for the Tulsa Police Department, the councilor from District 7 is correct.
From the time an aspiring crime fighter enters the academy until he takes his first call, Willingham said it costs the city $44,500, including the cost of the patrol vehicle, which amounts to $890,000 for 20 new officers.
Without vehicles, he said it would cost $12,700, totaling at $224,000 for a score of fresh badges.
His first figure included the cost of patrol cars because, at the moment, TPD doesn't have enough to accommodate fresh recruits.
"The Mayor stopped buying cars," said Willingham, who explained that, in the interest of saving money during the City of Tulsa's ongoing fiscal crisis, Mayor Kathy Taylor is looking into leasing patrol cars instead of buying them.
Even with such a tight budget, though, Eagleton's idea is doing more to raise eyebrows than it is to raise revenue. It isn't going over well, neither with police nor with his fellow councilors.
Since nobody likes paying traffic fines, word on the street from Tulsa's citizenry also isn't favorable to the councilor's idea.
(Nobody likes getting into traffic accidents, either, but those always happen to somebody else.)
"Officers writing tickets to pay their own salary... that's not what it's about for us," said Willingham, whose statements echoed those initially made by police unions in response to Eagleton's idea.
Public safety should be an officer's primary concern, Willingham explained, without city revenue even entering into consideration.
"I'm inclined to agree with the police department--I don't think you should have quotas on writing tickets," said District 5 Councilor Bill Martinson.
"I want to enhance public safety, obviously, but when you have police writing tickets to bring in revenue, it's a distraction from normal duties," he said.
"It's a bad idea--it puts an undue burden on police officers," said District 8 Councilor Bill Christiansen.
"The purpose of giving a ticket is to let that person who broke the law know that he shouldn't do that, not to raise revenue," he said.
"I respect John a lot, but I'm philosophically opposed to something like this," Christiansen added.
Eagleton, though, insists that his suggestion was taken in the wrong spirit.
Although he made his suggestion in the context of a discussion about how to fund a surge in police ranks, he said the revenue increase would only be a "collateral benefit."
Eagleton said he agrees with his fellow councilors and the police that the main appeal of his suggestion would be the bolstering of public safety it would accomplish, which itself would help to ease some of the city's budget pressures.
The misunderstood councilor said his suggestion was not to set quotas for traffic citations, only to put more officers on the streets.
"Writing tickets is just something they should do as a matter of course," said Eagleton.
As a result, more tickets would be written, not because police are pressured to do so, but because it's their job, he said.
Christiansen, though, said it's a fallacy that the increased traffic citations would help fill the city's coffers because whatever revenue stream the tickets brought would dry up as soon as it appeared because people would change their behavior when they see more police on the streets.
"Well, thank God. I can only imagine how many lives will be saved if there are no more traffic offenses," said Eagleton in response to such arguments.
Speeding, he pointed out, is the most common factor in fatal accidents, and the City of Tulsa has more speeders than most.
"That's a distinction that is an embarrassment to Tulsa," said Eagleton.
He said the average traffic accident costs $12,500 per car (slightly less than the cost of a new police officer, sans vehicle).
With fewer traffic accidents, Eagleton explained, the city would have to pay for fewer ambulance and fire department runs, which would further free up resources to pay for more police officers and other core services, as well as saving citizens the expenses in money and in blood that come with traffic accidents.
What's more, the councilor said, another collateral benefit seen over time would be lower insurance premiums for Tulsans.
"It's insanity not to do this," said Eagleton.
"As repugnant as this seems to some people, I have yet to hear any reason why this is a bad idea," he said.
Most of his critics, though, seemed to agree that the packaging in which it was delivered is by far the worst aspect of Eagleton's idea.
Willingham agreed with Eagleton's assessment of the benefits, but said, "It's a play on words" to point to the increased revenue stream from traffic tickets over the improvements in public safety it would bring.
"It's bad PR for the city," he said, if people believe they're being fined in the interest of filling city coffers rather than in the interest of saving lives, and are more likely to resent the police for it than to respect them for doing their jobs.
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott said he disagrees with Eagleton's suggestion, but said it doesn't seem so outlandish when taken in the context of city leaders' desperate search for alternative streams of revenue to offset Tulsa's dire financial straits.
"We're struggling--we have a limited source of revenue and until we can find and additional source of revenue we'll be dealing with a finite number of resources," he said.
About Eagleton's contribution to that search, Westcott said, "He's trying too hard to find an answer to a difficult problem, and I thank John for trying to help and for being creative, but I don't think it's doable."
"I don't agree with his idea, but I'm grateful that he's thinking outside the box," concurred Willingham.
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