Nearly 10 percent of Nassau's rank-and-file patrol cops engaged in a yearlong ticket-writing slowdown that was fueled by morale problems and has cost the cash-strapped county badly needed dollars, according to officials and county records.
By year's end, traffic and parking citations are projected to have fallen nearly 28 percent since 2010, according to county figures. From 2010 to 2011 alone, total tickets declined 20 percent, from 293,731 to 233,554.
Thomas Krumpter, Nassau's first deputy police commissioner, said the department's investigation identified some 160 officers, across all precincts, who willfully slowed their ticketing, and in some cases, halted it altogether.
"When you start to drill down, there was a number of cops that weren't doing anything and should have been writing tickets," Krumpter said.
The revelations come as Nassau's Office of Management and Budget forecast in a July report that county coffers would see $4.1 million less in parking, moving violation, red-light-camera and other tickets than was anticipated in the 2012 budget.
Ticket-writing slowdowns — and the opposite, speedups, in which cops go on a ticketing blitz — have bedeviled disgruntled police forces across the country, from the NYPD — where former Mayor Rudy Giuliani once angrily vowed to fire any officer caught doing a ticket slowdown — to Palm Beach to Dallas to Los Angeles.
Ticket output reviewed
In October, Nassau began to investigate the slowdown, and in January or February finished the investigation. After reviewing the ticket output of 493 officers identified as having written at least 50 percent fewer tickets during the first eight months of 2011 compared with that period in 2010, investigators concluded that about 160 had no excuse for their decline, officials said.
The investigation also found that the slowdown wasn't systematic or ginned up by the rank-and-file's labor union.
The officers found to have intentionally slowed down their ticket writing received counseling — a talking-to by their bosses, Krumpter said.
He told Newsday in October that if ticket-writing misconduct was discovered, offending officers could be fired. But Krumpter said earlier this month that beyond the counseling, no one has been punished for the slowdown.
The rank-and-file have been buffeted in recent years by a wage freeze, downsized precincts, a sinking head count and threats by the county executive to have them pay into their own health insurance.
"Any decrease is a reflection on the reduction of ranks over the past few years," said James Carver, head of the union, the Nassau Police Benevolent Association.
Many of those reductions consisted of desk jobs that were delegated to civilians, and the police department has maintained that, despite the reductions, it's kept the number of officers on patrol roughly consistent.
Krumpter declined to provide a written report he said the department created on the ticket-writing probe.
Administrative fees rise
Whatever financial bleeding the slowdown wrought has been stanched in part by administrative fees the county began imposing in 2011.
In 2007, the county — whose finances are now overseen by a state watchdog, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority — netted $13.2 million from moving violation tickets and $4.5 million in parking violations, according to figures supplied by the county. By 2011, around the time the slowdown appears to have begun, moving violation tickets brought in nearly $12.6 million, but only after administrative fees — which are paid in addition to the actual fine — more than tripled from the year prior.
Parking violations in 2011 netted the county just under $6 million, a figure officials said was inflated by the administrative fees that were more than five times higher than in 2010.
Figures provided by the police department show that tickets plummeted abruptly between November and December 2010.
In November 2010, the police wrote 16,130 moving violations and 7,970 parking tickets. A month later, 11,698 moving violations and 6,324 parking violations were written. Virtually every month since, the number of tickets has stayed far lower than in prior years.
"It comes down to morale," Krumpter said. "Individual morale. Individual motivation."
Ticketing for moving violations is up almost 9 percent and parking violations almost 6 percent for the latest available 28-day period — mid-August to mid-September — compared with the same period last year. But the brass acknowledge that some cops still haven't stopped the slowdown.
Despite the latest upswing in ticketing, Krumpter acknowledges there's still work to be done.
"At this point, there are still officers out there that aren't issuing summonses at what we believe to be an acceptable level, and we'll continue moving in the direction of looking to improve these numbers," he said.
Commanding officers have been tasked with scrutinizing their staff's ticketing activity. To encourage accountability, ticket figures are now compiled weekly rather than monthly.
Systematic actions illegal
A systematic slowdown would violate the state's Taylor Law, which bars public-sector unions from striking or engaging in slowdowns. In addition, managing officers' ticket writing poses a challenge because a quota also would break state law, Krumpter said.
In a paramilitary organization like a police department, where so much of the job is regulated, manipulating tickets is a way of slyly sending a message and expressing oneself, said Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop who's now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"That's how you make your point," O'Donnell said. "It gives you evidence that you have an unhappy workforce."
Krumpter said that a failure to issue tickets puts people at risk but notes that the county's traffic fatalities were down 3 percent in 2011 compared with 2010. It's unclear the cause of the drop, though it roughly coincides with the installation of red-light cameras that are known to discourage the bad driving that causes crashes.
It's become gospel among traffic safety researchers that ticketing speeding and other kinds of unsafe driving discourages bad driving and saves lives.
"A reduction in traffic enforcement is really detrimental to public safety," said David Bradford, a former police chief in the Midwest and now executive director of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety, which does traffic education. "It makes the streets less safe for the motoring public and for the citizens in general."
This story has been changed to correct incorrect information provided by the Nassau Police Department, which gave an inaccurate figure for the percent decline in countywide crash fatalities between 2011 and 2010. The correct figure is 3 percent, or a total of 3 fewer fatalities.