A recent study published in a national journal suggests there's a connection between the blue lights in your rearview mirror and the red ink on local governments' accounting books.
Local law enforcement leaders, however, say that officers don't issue traffic tickets to supplement city and county budgets.
"We don't police for money," said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. "Citizens sometimes assume that we view traffic citations and traffic enforcement as a revenue stream ... but that's not the way we police in Beaufort County."
A study published in March in the Journal of Law and Economics concluded that governments use traffic tickets to generate revenue. Researchers studied 14 years of traffic-ticket data from 96 counties in North Carolina and found that when local government revenues declined, police issued more tickets the following year. The study was authored by Thomas Garrett of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and Gary Wagner, a professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
"Estimates reveal that a 10 percent decrease in negative revenue growth results in a 6.4 percent increase in the growth rate of traffic tickets," researchers wrote. "Our results suggest that tickets are used as a revenue generation tool rather than solely a means to increase public safety."
Local law enforcement leaders, however, insist there is no connection, at least not in their jurisdictions.
"Traffic enforcement goes hand-in-hand with public safety," Tanner said. "It's not an issue of revenue for us."
More tickets written
In the city of Beaufort, while general fund revenues fell from $11.75 million in 2007 to $11.63 million in 2008, the number of tickets written by city police officers increased by more than 2,200 citations, from 5,992 in 2007 to 8,208 last year.
Police Chief Matt Clancy said the increase in citations occurred becausethe Beaufort County Joint Enforcement Traffic Team assigned an officer to patrol exclusively inside the city limits to handle increased traffic flow and respond to accidents. The traffic team consists of officers from the S.C. Highway Patrol, Yemassee, the Sheriff's Office and the city of Beaufort to enforce traffic laws throughout the county.
Clancy said city cops aren't doing anything other then their sworn duty.
"We're not conducting overly aggressive traffic enforcement," he said. "The city's revenues have absolutely nothing to do with traffic enforcement. Traffic safety is a huge part of law enforcement. We look at our statistics, look at where we have the most accidents, where we get the most complaints from residents about speeding, and we patrol those areas."
After giving the state its share of ticket revenue, the city retained $283,210 last year, a figure that accounted for about 2.4 percent of its $11.65 million in general fund revenues, up from 2.2 percent the year before.
Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies wrote nearly 2,000 fewer speeding tickets in 2008 than in2007, while the county's general fund revenues increased $2 million, from $84 million in 2007 to $86 million last year. (Direct comparisons between the county and the municipalities within it are difficult, since the county receives tax revenue from municipal residents but provides police service only to the Town of Hilton Head Island and unincorporated areas of the county.)
Port Royal wrote 700 fewer tickets last year than the year before, while general revenues increased from $4 million in 2007 to $4.25 million the next year.
Bad math, police officials sayBluffton Police Chief David McAllister said any suggestion that police write tickets to help fill government coffers are without merit.
"Let's take a fine of $100," he said. "After the state gets its cut, you get about $42, and by the time you pay the salary of the officer, the cost of fuel, the price of the car, plus the clerk of court and the judges, we're taking away about 50 cents."
"There's no money to be made there," McAllister added. "It's pennies on the dollar. I never discuss ticket revenue with the town or our officers. I have no idea how much we make in fines. I don't ask."
While Bluffton's general fund revenue fell from $8.7 million in 2007 to $8.5 million last year, the town's police force wrote nearly 1,000 more tickets last year than the year before.
Although the number of tickets was up, the amount the town retained from fines was down -- from $232,555 in 2007 to $189,000 in 2008.
McAllister said a portion of tickets written are often thrown out in court and that his officers wrote almost as many warnings as citations last year. The citation statistics obtained from Beaufort-area police departments do not include warnings.
Responding to residents
Responding to residents' complaints about reckless driving in residential areas is a primary reason police patrol where they do, said Yemassee Police Chief Jack Hagey.
The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet received several letters in recent months from drivers claiming that Yemassee officers were targeting out-of-state drivers on Interstate 95 and that the town itself was a speed trap.
Hagey said Yemassee's seven officers are just trying to keep residents safe -- not trying to help bolster town balance sheets.
"We don't know an out-of-towner from an in-towner," he said. "I-95 goes right through our gut, so of course we're going to police it. People complain when we enforce the law and they get a ticket, and they complain when we don't. If our residents complain about people speeding through their neighborhoods, we're going to work it, but we never tell our guys to go out and write 'X' number of tickets. There's no such thing as quotas."
Hagey said, "a good 90 percent," of the tickets written by Yemassee's seven full-time officers are written on I-95.
Records show that officers in Yemassee wrote 8,910 tickets in 2008, up from 8,348 tickets the year before and a significant increase from the 5,196 tickets written in 2006. Hagey said the town's police force hired three more officers and two reserve officers between 2006 and 2007.
Yemassee's general fund revenues, however, fell from $953,804 to $951,253 from 2006 to 2007, according to town records.
Yemassee Mayor J.L. Goodwin said the amount of money municipalities make off ticket revenues is overstated.
"We're lucky if we get half," he said. "Most of that money goes to the state."
For example, in 2007, Yemassee sent $231,543 of the $518,539 generated that year by police fines to the S.C. State Treasurer's Office, according to town records.
McAllister said police use traffic enforcement not only to ensure all drivers follow state laws, but to prevent all criminal activity.
"We want to make sure that people are safe on the roads, but ultimately good traffic enforcement leads to lower crime," he said. "Criminals travel in cars, so working traffic enforcement is just good, solid police work."