A recent off-the-record conversation with someone who regularly sits in on meetings with senior officials in provincial government provided a reminder of how perverse the business of traffic-law enforcement is.
Government departments are expected to run like private businesses. Instead of providing a service by employing tax money, they are expected to make profits. They submit budgets and seek sources of revenue to meet targets, match their expenses and become self-funding.
For many government departments, this isn’t a major problem. It boils down to setting appropriate user fees. Need an ID document? That will cost you X. Need a passport? That’s Y. Ultimately, the cost of administering this bureaucracy needs to be less than the proceeds from these user fees.
It becomes complicated when the same policy is applied to policing, however. The purpose of policing should not be to issue as many fines as possible in the hope of meeting budget projections. However, behind closed doors, local and provincial governments actively look to their police departments as sources of revenue. They are set financial targets: go out there, and bring in so much this financial year.
Lower down the ranks, officers are measured on their success at generating revenue. Every-one on the beat has a target. How they’re worked out differs from force to force, but usually it involves either numbers of fines issued, or value of fines collected, as a so-called “key performance indicator”.
The irony is this: the key performance for police should be crime prevention. For traffic police, it should be to ensure people stick to the speed limit, nobody overtakes on white lines or overloads their vehicles, and cars are roadworthy.
If they could issue a report at the end of the year that said they found no offences to fine, then we’d call that successful policing. But the police would consider it a failure and fire its officers for failing to meet departmental targets.
This is absurd. The consequences of this policy are far-reaching. It encourages a focus on the cheap, easy and efficient revenue-generating activity of speed trapping. It encourages those speed traps to be located not where speed is particularly dangerous, such as before sharp bends, but where speed limits are easily overshot, such as immediately after a new speed limit sign, or on long, open straights with high visibility.
The revenue-maximising targets of police departments encourage them to set up roadblocks, and inspect or search as many vehicles as they can, looking for anything that can attract a fine. This process directly contravenes the right to privacy protected in the Bill of Rights: “Everyone has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have their person or home searched; their property searched; their possessions seized; or the privacy of their communications infringed.”
In one European country I know, speed cameras are brightly painted and visible. Before you get to them, speed sensors pick you up and flash a warning on a sign: you’re going too fast, slow down. The aim is to encourage motorists not to speed, rather than entrapping as many as possible just to make budget targets.
By giving police revenue targets, they are rewarded when more people commit traffic offences. They are encouraged to go after the low-hanging fruit and avoid the more difficult, more time-consuming and less financially rewarding business of policing the biggest dangers to road users. And when they succeed in what ought to be their overriding mission – minimising traffic offences – their political overlords tell them they’ve failed.
The new road traffic offences act, AARTO, goes some way to creating a standard for offences and fines. This is good, but effective traffic-law enforcement in the service of citizens should reward officers for actually reducing the number of offences committed, instead of prosecuting as many as possible.
If an officer at a dangerous bend monitored 10 000 cars last week and found 100 to be speeding, he should be paid an incentive if he counts 10 000 cars this week and finds only 50 of them speeding. If he ends up issuing not a single ticket for a whole week’s work, he should get a medal and a bonus.
Such a system will mean police departments cannot be seen as a revenue-generating service. They should get incentivised not to meet revenue targets. This would make citizens safer on the roads and less hostile to police. What price would you place on a police force that we can trust is truly working for us, instead of just lining government coffers?