March 27, 2013

Hard line on seat belt enforcement: Life-saving effort, or quota system?

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.

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Col. Robert Williams

Contributed photo

"As a trooper, I have knocked on more than one door to tell them, 'Your child is dead,'" Williams said.

So starting in January, he took a hard line toward 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 troopers to issue at least seven infractions a month for seat belt violations -- amounts to a quota system.

State police statistics back up Williams's frustration:

* The percentage of passengers and drivers killed in car accidents in Maine who were unbelted jumped from 33 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2012.

* In 2012, 63 of the 111 people who died in accidents were not wearing seatbelts, while in 2010, 41 of the 123 who died were not wearing seat belts.

* The largest age group of unbelted car accident victims from 1994 to 2012 were 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 seatbelt on."

Williams told state troopers to get tough. He ordered them to aggressively enforce the state's mandatory seat belt law by ticketing -- not just warning -- seat belt scofflaws.

"The norm will be a summons and exception will be a warning," Williams wrote in the memo to state troopers explaining his new enforcement program.

Williams calls the program, which ran during the first three months of 2013, an "emphasis point."

To others, his program represents a quota.

"You will aggressively enforce seatbelt violations as part of your patrol function and will issue 7 summonses for seatbelt 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' 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 on the copies of the memo given to the Center.

The order to issue 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 a number of states, though not in Maine, according to civil liberties and defense attorneys.

Williams acknowledged in his email to troops 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' email with an emailed affirmation of the quota: "Troops, I have been asked if the seven (7) seatbelt summons expectation has been changed due to the email from Unit 1. You are still expected to comply with the expectation of Seven (7) seatbelt summonses per month. Noncompliance will result in a negative performance report."

(Continued on page 2)

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