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Increased police workload blamed for drop in Madison speeding enforcement

May 5, 2019

Speeding tickets issued last year by Madison police dropped by more than 40 percent after the department cut back on the number of officers dedicated to traffic control and amid a reported uptick in the times when police workload is too heavy to respond immediately to all but the most serious calls.

Police issued 6,622 tickets in 2017 but only 3,834 in 2018, according to the department’s annual report, released late last month. Speeding citations made up more than half of the 12,050 traffic citations police issued in 2017 for the 18 violations it detailed in the report. None of the others saw as significant a drop in terms of sheer numbers.

Capt. Brian Chaney Austin of the department’s Traffic and Specialized Services Division pointed to two interrelated factors in the decline.

Early last year, the department decided to reduce the number of officers on its Traffic Enforcement Safety Team, or TEST, from eight to five, and eliminated an afternoon traffic enforcement shift. Instead of having officers devoted to traffic enforcement from 6 a.m. to either 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. on weekdays, the smaller team now only works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays.

The decision to cut back TEST was in response to the increasing need for officers to work patrol, Chaney Austin said.

Secondly, for patrol officers generally, there’s a “lack of ability or time to do proactive traffic work, based on call volume,” he said.

The number of calls for police service actually went down slightly in 2018 compared with the prior year, to 211,507, according to the annual report, and the 24,887 offenses known to police in 2018 was up only slightly over 2017.

But Chaney Austin pointed to the amount of time police are spending on what’s known as “priority, or emergency, calls only” status.

Priority calls are shootings, special events or other incidents requiring a heavy police response. During these periods, the Dane County 911 center will not immediately send officers to calls that don’t present an imminent threat — such as noise complaints or minor thefts.

According to less formal records kept by police from May 2016 through 2017, officers were placed on priority-calls-only status an average of 25 hours a month, not including two instances in 2016 when police response was restricted but records don’t make clear for how long.

Priority-calls-only data for the first half of 2018 was not immediately available. But beginning in the middle of last year, the department instituted a new method for tracking the metric, and Chief Mike Koval’s third- and fourth-quarter updates to the City Council suggest a sharp increase in the time police are having to delay responding to more routine calls in order to handle larger events or more serious or complicated calls.

There were 91 occasions during the third quarter and 76 in the fourth “where MPD’s patrol response was limited to emergency and priority calls,” Koval wrote, although some of those instances created limited police availability only in specific parts of the city.

Police spent 240 hours in the third quarter and 190 in the fourth in priority-calls-only status, according to the report, or 80 hours per month in the third quarter and 63 per month in the fourth.

Koval acknowledged the department has “been much more intentional” in tracking data but that calls for service are “increasingly time-intensive, calls which require numerous resources over a sustained period of time.”

He pointed to high numbers of weather-related calls, time spent taking detained people to the state mental health hospital in Oshkosh, and calls that come in when officers are tied up at crime scenes as among the factors “creating a perfect storm which is driving our staffing and our overtime woes.”

Assistant Chief Victor Wahl said that while call volume isn’t up, “workload,” or the time spent on calls, is a better measure of what the department is doing.

The department is still working on an analysis of that, Wahl said, “but I am confident that 2018 patrol workload will be up from 2017.”

A 2016 MPD staffing report and a 2017 patrol staffing report both point to a need for more officers, and last year the department got eight of the 15 more patrol officers it said it needed. The total number of sworn officers increased by two, to 479, under this year’s budget.

Far West Side Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, a longtime supporter of increased police staffing, said speed enforcement is “very important in my district.”

“People are saying, ‘Why don’t we have more traffic enforcement?’” he said, and he tells them, “because we can’t.”

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