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Turnpike troopers writing tickets at a record clip

Sunday, May 12, 2002

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Here's a warning for drivers who use the Pennsylvania Turnpike: You'd better slow down.

 
 
Graphic: Going by the numbers

   
 

The new commander of Troop T, the state police contingent that patrols the toll road, has made stopping speeders a priority.

Capt. David K. Points became Troop T commander Jan. 6, 2001. That year, the number of speeding tickets issued on the turnpike increased by 16,075, or 21.6 percent, compared with 2000.

The 90,400 tickets established a turnpike record and represented one of the biggest jumps in the turnpike's 62-year history.

The record may not last long. During the first three months of this year, troopers wrote another 27,178 tickets, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year.

If the pace continues, troopers would issue far more than 100,000 tickets this year. And that's even though the number of troopers on patrol and the hours they spend on patrol have remained virtually the same for more than a decade.

Some troopers are not happy about their increased workload.

They say superiors have told them to write more tickets to maintain "station averages," and contend that is tantamount to an illegal quota system.

Troopers who don't keep up are getting unsatisfactory job evaluations, being placed on probation or being removed from their regular shifts, according to a pair of anonymous "public announcements" that have been distributed to state and turnpike officials.

Troopers contacted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette would talk only on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

One said that because he now has to stop more speeding vehicles than he normally would to meet his "station average" of 40 tickets a month, far more dangerous drivers are often ignored.

State police are known to set radar about 10 mph above the posted speed limit, which is 65 mph on most of the 525-mile turnpike system. It is 55 mph in urban areas and on a stretch where the turnpike and I-70 come together for 86 miles east of Pittsburgh.

But under pressure to meet station averages, some troopers say they are lowering speed settings.

"I'm writing a ticket for somebody going 74 mph, to make my quota, and a car goes whizzing past me doing 97," one trooper said. "That's the guy I should have been waiting for."

Points, the Troop T commander, said he had "no reaction whatsoever" to the anonymous letters, and he said he had not imposed a quota system.

"All I can tell you is that I'm well aware of the law [against quotas], and we don't have quotas," Points said. "I've asked all members of the troop to work hard, and they've responded. I'm proud of them and their efforts dedicated to highway safety, decreasing accidents and injuries, and saving lives."

He would not comment on trooper reviews or whether any had been given less desirable work shifts or placed on probation.

The Post-Gazette has obtained copies of memos written by intermediate officers directing rank-and-file troopers to "increase your enforcement efforts in order to bring you in line with the station norms" and to "bring the statistics up to a station average." Points would not discuss the memos.

State police brass canceled what they called a "marginal trooper improvement program" shortly after it was implemented in June 1988. That program, similar to the present "station averaging" program, called for in-depth evaluations of troopers who failed to issue as many citations as their more aggressive colleagues.

The General Assembly passed a law in 1981 prohibiting any "direct or indirect" traffic ticket quota system.

"When [Points] came in, he stated guys weren't using their time efficiently," a member of the Troop T patrol said. "We were told anybody who doesn't meet the station average will be disciplined informally by being kicked off their regular shifts or having supervisors ride along."

Troopers also said that in February and March this year, a scorecard was posted at the Gibsonia barracks identifying troopers and listing their "monthly stats."

"It's like they're running a competition," one said.

In addition, corporals have been told to ride along with troopers whose number of citations fell below the station average. The corporals record times of service, number of citations and warnings issued, and number of incidents handled, one of the troopers said.

"There's a fine line between the mission of policing and a quota system that can't be expressed or implied," said Gary Lightman, a Harrisburg attorney who represents the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association.

"You can't measure how many lives were saved today. But if management is measuring the number of public contacts troopers make and use it as a gauge of productivity, it's almost impossible to have that kind of gauge without it being a quota."

He said station averaging "can't make a trooper feel he's not as good as the other guy" or be used to subjectively discipline a trooper.

Cpl. Bruce Edwards, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, would not say whether he considered station averaging to be a quota system. But he has heard the reports and is "looking into it."

Both Lightman and Edwards said the turnpike needed to add troopers, especially with traffic volumes exceeding 150 million vehicles a year. Troop T consists of 235 state police, including seven added recently for the Mon-Fayette Expressway, and a 14-member civilian support staff.

In 1990, Troop T had 217 troopers and officers when the turnpike's traffic volume was 100 million vehicles.

Troopers also complained that some station coverage zones have been stretched to the point that safety has been jeopardized.

For example, they said, just two patrol cars have been covering 122.5 miles -- 245 miles in both directions -- between the Ohio line and Donegal during the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Points would not comment on specifics of patrol coverage. "I'm not saying we do or we don't" have two cars on duty on certain overnight shifts, he said. "But I'm confident about our level of coverage. The turnpike continues to have one of the best safety records in the country," with 0.3 fatalities for every 100 million miles traveled on the toll roads in 2000.

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