By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
The number of traffic citations issued by Metro police officers in the Northeast Resident Section increased significantly over the last half of 2017.
Between July and December last year, 848 citations were issued by local Metro officers alone, according to a report released by the department. That number more than doubled compared to just 360 citations during the same period of 2016.
The increased enforcement has caused a flurry of comment among many local residents on social media sites, as well as anonymous letters to the PROGRESS. Most of these comments have expressed concerns about the community being over-policed. Some have specifically requested a media investigation into local enforcement policy.
In response to those requests, the PROGRESS gathered the statistics and then interviewed local Metro Sergeant Bret Empey on Dec. 28. During the interview, Empey reviewed the local squad’s traffic enforcement numbers and talked about the factors behind the dramatic increase over the past six months.
Empey first acknowledged that traffic violations were not generally a huge problem in the Moapa Valley, especially in comparison to the urban areas of the county. He pointed out that the local communities have relatively minimal incidents of traffic fatalities or even serious accidents. But there are still occasional issues out there and local law enforcement has an obligation to watch for them, Empey said.
“It is true that the driving is not particularly terrible in town here,” Empey said. “But I still see people that will wave at me going down the road, all while they are on the phone, speeding and not wearing a seat belt. That is a problem that shouldn’t just be overlooked by local law enforcement.”
In addition, an added emphasis on traffic enforcement has been mandated through the line of command in the Metro department, Empey said. He points out that Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo was elected on a campaign pledge of reducing the high rates of traffic fatalities in the county. After taking office, Lombardo tasked the department’s Traffic Bureau to come up with an action plan on how to fulfill that pledge, Empey said.
A specific enforcement initiative has resulted from that plan. The enforcement results of that initiative has been bourne out by county-wide statistics. In 2016, traffic citations issued by Metro patrol divisions increased from 78,508 in the previous year to 97,788; an increase of more than 24 percent. Citations within the mainly urban-based Traffic Bureau have also risen by 8 percent between 2015 and 2016. The 2017 numbers are not yet available.
“The Sheriff mandated that focus as an agency, that we are going to reduce these fatalities,” Empey said.
“Of course, there is no secret that they forget about us in the rurals pretty regularly. So when he was looking at all these numbers and making these pledges, his thoughts weren’t much bigger than the Las Vegas Valley. But even out here, we work for the same agency. We work for that sheriff.”
Empey said that he was required to take a close look at the department’s action plan and determine what the Overton Resident Section could do to be on board with the rest of the agency.
“My chain of command looked over our numbers, and at what we produce out here in our little section, and they brought it to our attention that our work product was subpar,” Empey said. “They said, ‘Look, we know that you guys do it differently out there, but come one!’ The disparity between what some of the officers were doing, and what some were not, needed to be addressed.”
Empey said that some of the local officers resist the idea of writing a lot of traffic tickets. That is because it is uncomfortable to enforce laws against neighbors and friends who live in an officer’s home community, Empey said.
“Some officers enjoy just hugging babies and shaking hands and acting more like a mayor than like a cop,” Empey said. “They want to shrug that enforcement responsibility onto other officers and let them be the bad guys. But that is not fair to the other officers and it is not fair to the community we serve.”
Empey acknowledges that each of the local officers have different strengths that can be used in the community. “I don’t want all of them to be traffic officers,” he said. “I want them to have different areas of talent; and they do. But at the same time, there are duties that we all have to pick up. We all have the obligation to do the basics; and one of the basics is traffic enforcement.”
For Empey, all of this raises the question of how to be fair and expect each officer to do his share of the enforcement. He emphasized that Metro doesn’t allow supervisors to give quotas on how many tickets officers should write.
“I can’t give a quota,” he said. “It isn’t legal, I don’t do it and we at Metro don’t do it! It is just a bad formula! But from the taxpayer’s standpoint, how do you get quality work out of officers, that taxpayer dollars are paying their salaries, if you can’t give quotas or performance standards? That is the struggle.”
Empey said that he had spent a long time studying the numbers. He spoke to supervisors in the Traffic Bureau and other departments to see how they were managing it. And finally they came up with a plan for the local officers.
“The formula we came up with was that they just should meet the squad average,” Empey said. “I gave them the numbers of what the squad averages were and some of the guys saw that they might have to bring their numbers up to meet that average.”
Empey acknowledges it is easy to predict that this approach would bump up the average in the short term. And the statistics over the last few months have certainly bourne that out, he said. But he insists that those numbers will level off over time.
He points out that in the past couple of years the section has seen three replacements for retired officers and another officer has been assigned in the community on temporary duty. Two of those have come from the Department’s Traffic Division so they are used to writing tickets, Empey said.
“They are new and they want to do a good job,” Empey said. “They don’t want the boss on them and they want to stick around for a while. So they are listening to marching orders and going out and doing some traffic enforcement.”
At the same time, Empey is swift to mention that officers are not being disciplined or pressured for not meeting the average. “I want to make this clear,” he said. “I’ve been on for 25 years now and I’ve never heard of anybody getting put on leave of duty for not writing enough tickets. No one in my squad has ever been fired or disciplined in any way for a lack of citations or lack of car stops. Certainly all have been put on notice, though, that they need to produce numbers and that we are being watched by the command center in Las Vegas.”
In addition, there are other factors that have played a role in increasing the number of citations. Empey explains that many of the citations that have bumped up the statistics are written warning citations. These warnings, which involve no moving violations or points against the driver’s record, do count as a citation in the section’s reports, Empey said.
In addition, Empey says that a lot of the citations are being written by his officers while patrolling the stretch of Interstate 15 which passes through the Moapa Valley communities.
“Something like 95 percent of the tickets we issue out on I-15 are for speeding over 90 miles per hour,” Empey said. “In reality, it only takes about 20 minutes of sitting out there for an officer to be able to write a legitimate ticket for someone doing 90-plus. And those are good tickets.”
Empey said that he has heard the inevitable concerns, from his officers and others in the community, that patrolling out on the I-15 takes them away from the residents and the communities where their primary responsibility lies. But Empey insists that regular patrols on I-15 does protect the Moapa Valley residents.
“Most people in the valley use I-15 everyday to get to work,” Empey said. “We all use the interstate to get to and from town. So it does protect our citizenry here.”
Even so, Empey recognizes the need for balance in the local traffic enforcement. He says he has cautioned his officers to be careful to not be perceived as over-policing or oppressing the community.
“We don’t want to be seen as a bunch of jack-booted thugs running around oppressing people,” Empey said. “So I’ve cautioned my guys to use their discretion. They are all mature officers and have been around for awhile and they know how to do that. And I have always held their discretion as sacred.”
“There are a lot of places where they can go to meet the standard and still help our citizenry,” Empey added. “And it’s always completely up to them whether they will issue a citation or not.”
In the end, Empey expects that the traffic citation numbers will all even out when his officers get settled in to what the expectations are and how they can meet them.
“It will all settle out when they figure out that they can just stop a couple of handfuls of cars a month and write a ticket here and there for people who deserve it,” Empey said. “Everything will shake out. They are all good officers. I’m not panicked about it and no one else should be.”