If cops write traffic tickets to generate revenue for the local government, then Bridgeville’s police officers are doing it wrong.
Last year, the Bridgeville Police Department wrote 631 traffic tickets, made 58 DUI arrests, and wrote numerous non-traffic citations.
The borough’s profit from all of that was $2,400.
“Some people think that we make a lot of money off of it,” said Bridgeville Police Chief Chad King, “but I’d be willing to bet that sometimes we even lose money.”
That’s because the cost of sending a police officer to court greatly outweighs the revenue from a basic traffic ticket (even if it doesn’t seem that way when you’re the person being ticketed).
A citation for running a red light might cost you upwards of $112. But most of that money goes to state and county agencies in the form of fees and surcharges. The actual fine for your violation is just $25. If you plead guilty, Bridgeville gets half of that—$12.50.
If you challenge that ticket and the magistrate finds you guilty, Bridgeville still only gets $12.50.
If the police department has to send an officer to court during his scheduled off time, the borough must pay at least three hours of overtime, even if the hearing only takes 15 minutes.
In Bridgeville, that means the borough spends at least $169.75 to get that $12.50.
“Even if a guy writes 10 tickets, we’re still paying more than we get back,” King said. “I suspect that the numbers would be similar for any other police departments in the area, and we’re pretty proactive as far as traffic goes, and arrests.”
To turn a profit, a Bridgeville police officer would have to write at least 14 standard traffic tickets and have them all adjudicated on the same day in no more than three hours. For police sergeants, the number would be even higher.
Of course, in the real world things are a bit more complicated.
The fine for speeding is generally more than $25, and the borough keeps 100% of the revenue from non-traffic citations such as disorderly conduct and public intoxication.
Arrests for DUI are a special category where money comes back from the state government. Last year, the Bridgeville Police Department’s 58 DUI arrests last brought in $6,438—an average of $111 per arrest.
If a court hearing is held in Downtown Pittsburgh, that costs Bridgeville a minimum of four police officer overtime hours, which equals $226.38. And it’s not uncommon for Court of Common Pleas cases to require multiple visits, so the department’s cost for a single arrest can quickly double or triple.
In the end, the numbers show that writing citations is not a revenue generator for the police department or the borough.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing at a time when police departments, courts, and municipalities in some parts of the United States are accused of subsidizing local government by fining the residents least able to pay.
This is clearly not the business model in Bridgeville.
“People get pulled over and say, ‘It’s the end of the month, you can to hit your quota,'” King sad. “But there aren’t quotas. Guys can write as many tickets as they like.”
But is there an incentive for police officers to write lots of tickets for personal gain—for the overtime that comes with court visits?
Not really, King says. Not all citations are contested, and when they are, the magistrate’s office tends to schedule them in bulk, so that officers aren’t running back and forth for each ticket.
“Hearings are not held weekly,” King said. “Getting overtime is nice, but for a lot of guys, having to go to court on your day off is a pain in the butt. Me personally, I still make arrests and write tickets. But because I’m salaried, I don’t get overtime for that.”