March 27, 2013

Seat belt crackdown raises quota concerns

By NAOMI SCHALIT and JOHN CHRISTIE Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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.

Related Documents

State police memoranda related to seat belt enforcement targets
Maine State Police memoranda related to seat belt enforcement targets

"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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