By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @PGJournal
Posted: October 1, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
Program would streamline ticket issuance, reduce traffic stop length
PRINCE GEORGE – One of the most dangerous places for a police officer to be is either parked along the side of the road or standing at the window of a driver as they receive or process information during a traffic stop, which is one of the reasons local authorities are looking to transition away from handwritten summons.
This month, Prince George County Police Chief Keith Early and Lt. Paul Burroughs presented their proposal of looking into implementing an e-summons program for the department an in effort to streamline processes for officers in the field and increase safety by reducing the time and duration an offender and officer alike are stopped on the side of the road during a traffic stop.
Currently, the county, and many jurisdictions in Virginia use traditional handwritten summons for various traffic and criminal offenses, with physical copies going to the courts, the defendant, the department’s records personnel, and the officer and relies on one’s ability to decipher a variety of handwriting in order to manually key information into various databases.
As part of this proposal, the department, partnering with Central Square, their records management system and computer-aided dispatch vendor, would install hardware in patrol vehicles that would allow for information to be scanned into the computer and automatically populate certain fields of the summons, while also providing printed versions for the defendant.
According to the chief, the sheer volume of paperwork related to summons can be staggering, even for a smaller community like Prince George County.
“In 2018, our officers issued approximately 6,000 Virginia Uniform Summons, both traffic and criminal so, it is a large volume of paperwork along with the efforts that go into that paperwork, such as in the clerk’s office, the Supreme Court, internally, and with the defendant,” Early detailed.
Walking through the reasons why local law enforcement believe utilizing an e-summons program is important, Lt. Burroughs noted the reduction in time spent on a traffic stop, with some estimates of anywhere from 50 to 70 percent less time spent when compared to use of a traditional handwritten summons.
“We read everyday about officers being hit on the side of the road, whether it is standing beside the car or inside their vehicles,” he remarked. “The longer we are on the side of the road, the chances greatly increase for that.”
According to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control, between 2007 and 2017, of the over 1,500 officers killed in the line of duty, 460 died as a result of vehicle crashes and 130, roughly nine percent, died due to be struck by a vehicle. A report released by MPH Industries, which specializes in radar and other monitoring equipment for law enforcement, found 81 percent of officers who have patrol duties surveyed have significant concerns about themselves or a fellow officer being struck during the performance of their duties.
Paired with safety is also efficiency as this system allows for driver’s licenses and registration information to be scanned into the computer and software to populate specific sections of the summons, which helps streamline an officer’s efforts. Lt. Burroughs explained, if an officer has to write multiple summons, that means they would need to re-write multiple pieces of information on each of them. With this system, all of that information would automatically be placed in their respective spaces, along with proper spelling and other information.
With this program and hardware, very little typing would be required of the officer, aside from entering in the specific code section of the alleged violation that resulted in the summons. The data would automatically be downloaded to the courts on the following business day and entered into the department’s record management system.
In 2016, the Dinwiddie Sheriff’s Office transitioned to an e-summons program, which started as a pilot program and has since become a successful element of the department’s operations. In an interview, Sheriff D.T. Adams offered nothing but praise for the impact it has had on his office’s operations.
“It is a good thing to have because the tickets go straight to the courts digitally and it cuts down on a lot of time because you can scan in the driver’s licenses and registration into the computer,” he remarked, adding that deputies spend less time parked on the side of the road engaged in traffic stops thanks to the e-summons program.
As part of the program, state law allows for localities to pass an ordinance where up to $5 can be charged “as part of the costs in each criminal or traffic case in the district or circuit courts located where such cases are brought in which the defendant is charged with a violation of any statute or ordinance” in a town, city, or county, with the proceeds of that revenue being required to go toward funding “software, hardware, and associated equipment costs for the implementation and maintenance of an electronic summons system.”
That information was presented by Early this month, with a sample ordinance stating that “an Electronic Citation/Summons System Fee of $5” would be levied against “any defendant who is convicted of violating any statute or ordinance” in Prince George, with the fees going toward costs associated with the e-summons system, as required by state law.
According to Early, this program could be self-funding through the use of this or a similar county ordinance that would allow the assessment of the fee to support the implementation and maintenance of the system and its software.
“An average vehicle, to equip it with the software and hardware, would be about $2,000 per vehicle,” the chief explained. “The anticipated annual revenue from this $5 additional court fee for summons written in a year would be $20,000. So if we adopted this ordinance, one year later, would could expect about $20,000 in that account to turn around and implement into this program.”
“Once the program were to be up and running, it would, without a shadow of a doubt, be self-sustaining,” Early commented.
According to Chief Early, the major up-front cost is the software itself at approximately $40,000, which is required in order to make the e-summons program work, noting they are “dead in the water” and unable to move forward without actually purchasing the software.
While the board was largely in favor of the proposal, there were questions raised by supervisors, including Alan Carmichael, who remarked he doesn’t want a message going out to the community that the county is “going to get ticket happy to get $5 for every one we write.”
“That is not the purpose of this at all,” he said. “The point you made about officers being on the side of the road, the legibility of the writing, inclement weather, and the stuff you have to go through, I think this is a great idea for them to have this,” with fellow supervisor and vice-chair Floyd Brown, Jr. echoed those thoughts and the remarks of police leaders, noting that the revenue generated by the fee in the proposed ordinance can only be used for costs tied to the e-summons program itself.
“Officer safety is paramount and that is what all of this is all about,” Chairman Donald Hunter shared. “By shortening the time the officer has to be exposed to ongoing traffic in addressing the violator.”
While supervisors voiced their support for the program, the next step before it can be implemented is for the proposed language in the draft ordinance to be presented for a public hearing for the community to provide input. If that language is approved, it provides options for the county and police department in terms of implementation of the program.
According to Early, the option exists to look at asset forfeiture funds or other money through the fiscal year to help pay for the costs or, if the ordinance is approved and adopted, allow that money to accrue over a year or two to generate the funds needed, at an expected rate of roughly $20,000 per year.
For Brown, the idea was something he would like to see moved forward in the interest of officer safety.
“If we get to a point where we are delaying this because we are trying to figure out where $40,000 is coming from, if we have an officer get hit along the side of the road, I don’t think any of us are going to sit here and feel proud that we pushed this to side trying to debate over $40,000 or $50,000,” he remarked. “I know we are not trying to solve it tonight but, I just think we need to keep that in perspective. Yes, there is going to be start-up costs and if, for some reason, we have fund it and then get some of it back as the revenues are coming in, we can work all those details out.”
“If it is truly about officer safety, I don’t think we sit here and play with when we start this because of money. If we were talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, we’re talking a huge difference,” he closed.
Supervisor Webb, who agreed safety is first, also asked if funding within the department’s budget could help offset the startup costs of the e-summons program.
“Safety is paramount but, somewhere down the road, I would like to see where you can come up with versus what we might be able to come up with to make it work,” he remarked. “It is a great program but I would just like to see us move forward but how we are going to get to the end game.”