On the lookout

From his police version of a Dodge Charger, Officer Swain monitors traffic speed along George Douthit Drive in Jacksonville Wednesday afternoon. Jacksonville police have lately been issuing a substantially increased amount of traffic citations. 

Figures on the number of traffic tickets Jacksonville police have written recently have raised some eyebrows, but solid explanations for those figures are harder to come by.

Police officers there have nearly tripled the number of traffic citations they’ve issued from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018, according to data given to the City Council on Monday.

Jacksonville police Chief Marcus Wood, who was sworn in on Monday, said there was no written or defined reason for the surge in traffic citations.

The retirement of former Chief Tommy Thompson and the installation of a new chief was one of the reasons, Wood suggested.

 “I think the anticipation of that made them get out and work a little bit more,” the new chief said.

Wood said he thinks the city’s seasonal population fluctuation due to Jacksonville State University also plays a role.

Jacksonville’s municipal judge, Jennifer Weems, said she noticed in August that collections from traffic citations were up “substantially.”

“When I took this position last March, we were averaging about $27,000 a month in collections. This August of 2018 we saw about $67,000 in collections, so we started taking note of what was going on,” she told the City Council at Monday’s meeting.

Weems says this uptick has been difficult for the court’s magistrates to handle, so she asked the City Council to add another to the court at its meeting Monday night. The city currently has one magistrate and a municipal court clerk, who is a registered magistrate, and helps with those duties.

The municipal judge didn’t know how much it would cost the city to hire a new magistrate, but said the city administrator would have that information; attempts to reach the city administrator Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The City Council plans to see how other local municipal courts’ magistrates operate before deciding whether another one is necessary for the Jacksonville court, according to Councilman Jimmy Harrell. Council members agreed to make a decision at its next meeting.

In the last four months the municipal court has collected more than half the money it collected in all of fiscal year 2018, which ran from Oct. 1, 2017 to Sept. 30, 2018, according to Weems. She said November’s collections totalled more than $70,000.

Wood said because Jacksonville is a football town, there’s naturally a rise in traffic during October and November, but admitted he doesn’t have data directly reflecting that.

“You go back to the tornado and having a lot of extra people in the city doing work,” he said “There were a lot of people traveling to and from helping family, so I think that combination of things could be the reason for the rise in tickets.”

Weems said in the 2017 fiscal year Jacksonville officers wrote 735 traffic citations. She said that number rose to 1,948 in the next fiscal year. In the past two months officers have written 835 traffic tickets, more than all of the tickets written in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the judge.

“It would be illegal for us as department heads to go out and tell officers to write more tickets,” Wood said. “What we can do is tell our officers to concentrate in certain areas. Or we can give data like we’re high on wrecks in a certain area and pay more attention to do preventive policing.”

Weems said it’s important to note Jacksonville’s Municipal Court offers a deferred program, which some offenders are eligible for. Residents who apply for this program might have to attend driving school, among other requirements that would result in the ticket being dismissed.

“In many cases this can be set up without the need for the citizen to come to court, if they will see the municipal court clerk’s office prior to their court date,” she said.

Weems said people with tickets can sign up for payment plans or community service on traffic tickets, without having to go to court, by going to the municipal court clerk’s office.