Penny wise, pound foolish

It's a beautiful day to commit a traffic violation: With no overtime, Houston cops writing fewer tickets

It's a beautiful day to commit a traffic violation: With no overtime, Houston cops writing fewer tickets

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Feel the urge to commit a traffic violation coming on? There's no better time than the present, thanks to a policy instituted in late July by city attorney David Feldman and an unwillingness by Houston Police Department (HPD) officers to show up at traffic court without the promise of overtime compensation.

A report from Texas Watchdog indicates that the city, though simultaneously saving money in overtime pay, has lost millions in unwritten and dismissed traffic tickets. Texas Watchdog analyzed data from the Houston municipal court system and found that HPD officers are writing about 25 percent fewer tickets than last year, and around one in seven violations processed in municipal court (the gross majority of which are traffic violations) were then dismissed because the ticketing officer did not show up.

Prior to the institution of Feldman's new overtime policy, Houston police officers were able to collect overtime to sit in traffic court and wait for their cases to come up. In an effort to curb unnecessary overtime spending (which hit almost $50 million in 2009), officers involved in juried traffic disputes are now not allowed to come to court until 1 p.m.

In the last three months, as compared to the same three months in 2009, the city has saved approximately $250,000 in overtime pay — and, according to Texas Watchdog's figures, lost $2.3 million in potential traffic fines.

CultureMap spoke to Gianpaolo Macerola, a Houston attorney who has worked with the municipal court, about the recent effects of Feldman's overtime policy. "Officers aren't giving out nearly as many tickets because they have no incentive, because they aren't receiving overtime," Macerola says.

"One of my friends, another lawyer who works solely in Muni [Municipal] court, says there are some officers he used to see all the time, who were giving 200 to 300 tickets a month, who are now down to five or 10."

Macerola says the new policy also causes a major backlog for citizens trying to dispute their tickets, because morning cases can't be dismissed until at least 1 p.m. when the court knows whether the police officer is going to show up or not.

"How many trials can you put in between 1 and 5 p.m.?" Macerola asks.

What do you think? Is it a problem of policy, or are officers demanding extra compensation for doing the regular duties required of their jobs?

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