Col. Robert Williams had seen enough. The chief of the state police had seen enough mangled bodies in car wrecks over 30 years on the force. Enough distraught and hysterical mothers and fathers. Enough lives that could have been saved with the click of a seat belt.
“As a trooper, I have knocked on more than one door to tell them, ‘Your child is dead,’ ” said Williams.
So starting in January, he took a hard line on seat belt enforcement, in hopes that fewer Mainers — especially teenagers and young adults — would be killed in car accidents.
But some people are saying that the directive, which requires each trooper to cite at least seven seat belt violations a month, amounts to a quota system.
State police statistics back up Williams’s frustration:
- In 2010 just 33 percent of the 123 people killed in Maine car accidents – 41 victims – were unbelted.
- Last year 56 percent of the 111 people who died — 63 victims — were not wearing seat belts.
- From 1994 to 2012, the largest age group of unbelted traffic accident victims was the group from 16 to 24 years old.
“Voluntary compliance has not been working,” Williams wrote in a memo to state police late last year. “A person a week is dying in a crash because they did not have their seat belt on.”
Williams told troopers to get tough. He ordered them to aggressively enforce the state’s mandatory seat belt law by ticketing – not just warning – scofflaws.
“The norm will be a summons and exception will be a warning,” Williams wrote in the memo explaining his new enforcement program.
Williams calls the program, which has run in the first three months of 2013, an “emphasis point.”
To others, his program represents a quota.
“You will aggressively enforce seat belt violations as part of your patrol function and will issue 7 summonses for seat-belt violations per month as a minimum expectation,” reads an emailed memo from a leader of one of the state’s eight troop divisions, issued in response to Williams’s directive. “This expectation will be added to everyone’s evaluation immediately.”
The emails were obtained by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, but the name of the troop leader had been crossed out of the copies that were provided.
The order to cite a minimum number of violations per month and the vow to make that “expectation” an element in a trooper’s evaluation are the hallmarks of a quota system, which is illegal in some states, though not in Maine, according to civil liberties and defense attorneys.
Williams acknowledged in his email to troopers that his directive had been translated into hard numbers by some troop commanders.
“Because of our discussion, some Troops have set an expectation that a certain number of summons be written,” Williams wrote. “While I do not believe the number of summons expected is unreasonable, my intent was never to limit your ability to use discretion. I should have made this clearer during our discussion.”
In an interview, Williams said, “It’s not a quota. We don’t have quotas. It’s a work expectation.”
Nevertheless, the troop leader followed up Williams’s email with an emailed affirmation of the quota: “Troops, I have been asked if the seven (7) seat-belt summons expectation has been changed due to the email from Unit 1. You are still expected to comply with the expectation of Seven (7) seat-belt summonses per month. Noncompliance will result in a negative performance report.”
Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said he had “never seen this clear evidence before” that some Maine police were using a quota system.
“It’s a real problem,” said Heiden. “The bottom-line concern is the danger that the police are going to make unconstitutional stops,” violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure.”
“Say an officer only sees evidence of three violations, but is being required to make seven stops,” said Heiden. “Seven stops required minus three legitimate stops equals four violations of constitutional rights. “
Richard Hartley, a Bangor attorney who is president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the requirement is troubling.
“The problem is that we rely on individual law enforcement officers to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “(If) they have their individual discretion overborne by a policy that relates their production of tickets to their job performance, it’s a dangerous slope.”
But state Trooper Aaron Turcotte says the directive doesn’t bother him.
“We want this deadly trend to stop,” said Turcotte, a member of the Maine State Troopers Association’s executive committee. “We never heard the colonel come out and say, ‘You need to do seven a month.’ It was an expectation at the troop level.
“The colonel was right on when he says this needs to be an emphasis point,” said Turcotte, who added that the association’s board fully supports the initiative.
Williams’s boss, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, also supports it.
“How many of those young people’s deaths do you read the word ‘ejected’ from the car,” said Morris. “That’s what’s killing them.”
In 1995, Maine had no mandatory seat belt law and the state’s rate of seat belt use was 50 percent, according to a study published by the University of Southern Maine. That put Maine “fifth from the bottom of a list of all 50 states,” according to the study.
In November of that year, state voters approved, by less than one percentage point, “Question 8,” which asked “Do You Favor Requiring All Persons to Use Safety Belts in Motor Vehicles?”
Enforcement of the law was limited: Police could ticket drivers or passengers for seat belt violations only if they had stopped them for other, citable offenses.
Seat belt use grew to 72.3 percent in 2004. But to safety advocates, it wasn’t growing fast enough. In 2007, Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union proposed giving police the power to ticket drivers or passengers as a primary offense — if police saw you weren’t wearing a seat belt, they could stop you.
The bill passed, and in the months after the law’s implementation, Maine’s daytime seat belt use rose from 77 percent to 84 percent; nighttime use rose from 69 percent to 81 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
By 2012, daytime seat belt use was at a record 84.4 percent, but still less than the national rate of 86 percent.
The rising compliance rates in Maine, while gratifying, masked a stubbornly vexing statistic: The biggest age group of unbelted victims in fatal accidents was people ages 16 to 24.
“This is a generation of people who have never been in a car, growing up, when they haven’t been in a child safety seat, a booster seat or a seat belt,” Williams said. “But all of a sudden, when they start driving on their own, at least some of them aren’t wearing their seat belts.”
Williams wants his enforcement initiative to drive down the number of deaths of young people.
“The whole purpose of this initiative is to stop knocking on people’s doors at 1 a.m. to tell them someone is dead,” he said. “The whole point is to try to keep people alive.”
Rep. Mark Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff who is now a lawyer and a co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, said he understands why Williams wants tougher enforcement but the appearance of a quota will spell trouble.
“The public just reacts that the quota becomes superior to the goal — not only that, when you start to back specific numbers, you’re really eroding an officer’s ability to exercise discretion,” said Dion. “I’m sure the colonel is going to get some feedback on this.”
But Savage, whose bill gave police primary enforcement power over seat belt laws, said the ends may justify the means. She said she remembers vividly the hearing on her bill.
“We had some testimony that was heartbreaking. There just were so many losses of life. . . . Not only a loss of life, but so many people were getting seriously injured and handicapped because of those injuries.
“I don’t like to see the state police have numbers to try to meet,” Savage said. “But whatever will protect the lives of teenagers, I guess I can accept.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. It can be contacted by email at:
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