BUCKHANNON — A debate over traffic citations erupted at Thursday’s Buckhannon City Council when one council member questioned why the Buckhannon Police Department was on track to write 400 more tickets in 2017 than it had last year.
The issue came to the forefront when city police chief Matt Gregory presented the department’s monthly activity report for May, which showed that the department gave out a total of 226 traffic citations, the bulk of which — 140 — were for failure to use a seatbelt.
Councilman CJ Rylands questioned Gregory about the numbers, noting that if you multiply 226 by 12 months in a year, the Buckhannon Police Department is on track to issue 2,712 traffic citations for 2017.
“According to the spreadsheet I shared with you, in 2016, you had about 2,300 citations, while the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department had about 338 and the Buckhannon detachment of the W.Va. State Police had about 880,” Rylands said to Gregory. “It looks like we’re going to have about 400 more tickets this year than we did last year if this month is reflective of ongoing ticketing.”
Rylands referenced a spreadsheet he had compiled comparing the ratio of warnings to tickets for the BPD, the sheriff’s department and the state police, a copy of which he provided to The Record Delta.
Rylands’ data shows that the city police department writes far more tickets than warnings when compared to the other local law enforcement agencies.
The sheriff’s department writes just one citation for every four warnings, according to the spreadsheet, while the state police write one ticket for every three warnings. The BPD was the only department to write more tickets than warnings, with approximately three tickets for every two warnings.
“It looks like three [city] officers are writing 78 percent of the tickets, with one officer writing about 33 percent of the tickets,” Rylands observed, referencing Gregory’s report. “When we did a six-year comparable, at that time you were about three citations for one warning, where both the sheriff’s department and the state police were 3.2 to 3.8 warnings per citation. So I would just like to hear your thoughts on that.”
Gregory said he began itemizing traffic citations in order to counter the perception that officers were constantly pulling people over for speeding.
“You’re comparing apples to oranges if you’re saying a ticket’s a ticket’s a ticket,” the chief said.
For instance, although 24 citations were issued for no insurance carried during May, Gregory said “9.9 times out of 10,” that charge is dismissed if the individual is able to provide proof of insurance. Additionally, citations for expired MVI stickers, six of which were issued in May, are usually dismissed because a person has a five-day grace period during which to provide proof of inspection to city hall.
“So, if you compare just those two examples to speeding ticket (six of which were also issued in May, according to Gregory’s report), you’re talking apples and oranges,” Gregory said, “and that’s why I started to itemize.”
Rylands countered, “But these other departments, if they’re writing those same tickets, are experiencing the same rate of cancellation of citations, and the gross numbers are the gross numbers, which we’re talking about.”
Gregory said the 140 citations issued for failure to use a seatbelt in May was due to the fact that May is what’s considered a “blitz period” under the Governor’s Highway Safety program. Due to those blitz periods, seatbelt usage has increased from 49 percent about 17 years ago to 80-90 percent today, Gregory claimed.
“And the thinking on that is if people are wearing seatbelts, they’re more likely to survive if they are in some kind of car cash, so it saves lives,” the police chief pointed out.
He also noted that a seatbelt citation is a flat $25 fine and does not include any additional court costs; however, a speeding ticket will cost an offender $200 or more plus three to six points on their driver’s license.
City attorney Tom O’Neill noted that 226 was the number of citations issued, not the number of individuals cited, meaning some individuals may have been cited for multiple offenses.
Rylands also wanted to know why three officers wrote 78 percent of the citations — officers were listed as numbers, such as 301, rather than names on Gregory’s report — when another three officers issued 0 citations in May.
“Are they not working, or what’s going on?” Rylands asked.
Gregory explained that the officers with zero citations were Nick Caynor, who resigned from the department in April; Sgt. Mark Stewart, who was working as a prevention resource officer in Buckhannon Academy Elementary School during May; and Lt. Doug Loudin.
Dr. Timothy Reese, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said he had a question for Rylands.
“Are you thinking these tickets are legitimate or are you thinking we’re ticketing too much in the city or are you saying that if someone comes here and hears, ‘Don’t speed in Buckhannon,’ that that’s a bad thing?”
Rylands replied, “I’m not drawing conclusions; I’m just looking at facts, which we seem in the City of Buckhannon to write a lot more tickets than our Upshur County Sheriff’s Department or the Buckhannon detachment of the state police.”
Reese said, “The broader question is, it comes down to a situation here of writing tickets like it’s a big no-no, like we don’t want to have a record of that. If I see no tickets being written, I think all hell’s breaking loose there. If someone says, ‘Don’t speed in Buckhannon,’ I think that’s a pretty good thing.”
Rylands said, “Well, I guess that’s your prerogative. I’ll ask you, what type of police behavior makes you feel safe and what type of police behavior builds trust and cohesion with the community?”
Reese said rules should be abided by, to which Rylands said, “So all rules ought to be enforced uniformly?”
Reese answered, “Within reason, yes. With these offenses, I don’t think anything’s unreasonable.”
Rylands encouraged Reese to study the data and “get accurate information to base your decisions on, which is part of the process that I’ve undertaken.”
City recorder Susan Aloi chimed in, saying there are two perspectives from which law enforcement behavior can be viewed.
“I get what you’re saying,” Aloi said to Reese, “but what I’ve heard from people is, ‘Oh my gosh, look at the number of citations, there must be a lot of crime in Buckhannon,’ which is different from your perspective, which is, ‘They must be keeping us safe.’
“So I think it’s a matter of perspective, and I think Matt’s right about not just counting how many but thinking about what they are.”
Reese said that if police are being encouraged to refrain from writing tickets, he sees that as problematic.
“If people are looking at living here, there better be some show of law enforcement here,” Reese said.
Rylands reiterated that BPD officers are more likely to issue citations than warnings and said it’s a matter of what kind of culture the town wants to foster between law enforcement and residents.
Mayor David McCauley called the exchange between Rylands, Gregory and Reese “a compelling dialogue that we’re going to continue.”
Look for more city council news in Wednesday’s edition of The Record Delta.