Special report: Charleston cops ordered to write more tickets

By Harve Jacobs  bio | email

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The internal memos, sent out in March and September of this year and obtained by Live 5 News, contain eye opening orders to officers.

In a memo dated Sept. 19, traffic enforcement commander Lt. Chip Searson wrote, "Our citation productivity from week to week is not where it should be. I cannot simply defend how some can produce 60-plus citations and five arrests per week and others produce 30-50 citations only per week."

When Live 5 News asked Searson about the memo, he responded that he was not instructed to tell officers to write more tickets. "No one has come to me and said, 'you need to write more tickets, we need the money.' That is not what the Charleston Police department is about," Lt. Searson told us.

Through Oct. 22 of last year, city officers wrote 38,174 traffic citations. Through the same date this year, cops wrote 35,045 tickets. That's a drop of nearly ten percent.

Lt. Searson says he ordered more citations to be given out in part, as an educational tool to make law breakers think about their driving. "Probably one of the most common means for any law enforcement agency to enforce the highway, to adjust driver behavior is the issuance of a citation," Searson said.

In his memo, Searson made it clear he wanted better results on the street. He warned of consequences and changes if the goals were not met that include "moving shifts and personnel around, permanent days off, etc."

"I wanted to get my point across and I wanted to be serious. It's a very serious thing," he told Live 5 News. "I take it personally and I take it very serious as the commander of the traffic unit."

According to the memo, the police department has three traffic squads. Lt. Searson has ordered them to write 700 traffic citations a week and also have a total of six checkpoints. "In my opinion, this is a production quota, like any other production quota," said Charleston constitutional attorney John Harrell.

But Harrell says the police department is not doing anything illegal. "It is conduct by the police department that would seem to promote overzealous enforcement," said Harrell.

Harrell cited a 2002 North Carolina case in which a police officer sued his department and the Department of Motor Vehicles, claiming they forced him to write too many tickets as part of a quota system.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers South Carolina, ruled in the police department's favor, saying an officer can stop a driver if there is reasonable suspicion the driver is breaking the law.

Lt. Searson says whether drivers think it's a quota system or something else, his officers will continue to give out tickets, all in the name of safety.

©2009 WCSC. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.