ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Rockford Department of Public Safety’s traffic stop quota appears to have prompted officers to pull over more than 5,000 drivers in two years.  

But the department only issued around 300 tickets in that time frame.

Rockford Police Chief Dave Robinson told Target 8 his department focuses on educating drivers, not generating revenue for the city.

“We believe this helps educate drivers as to what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing so they can become better drivers,” Robinson wrote in an email to Target 8. “For example, it might be being more conscious of traffic conditions and surroundings so they can avoid speeding or running a red light or inspecting their vehicle regularly so they can identify when they need to get a headlight or taillight repaired.”

Target 8 first reported in April that Rockford DPS had required its officers make two traffic stops on average per shift.

At the time, the department’s attorney said it no longer enforced the stop quota, though he did not share when the agency discontinued the practice nor why.

While ticket quotas are illegal in Michigan, police departments can use the number of traffic stops conducted to evaluate an officer’s performance.

A federal lawsuit over a March 2019 traffic stop in Rockford exposed the agency’s quota system.

The plaintiff’s attorney discovered the officer who made the disputed stop had been chastised the month before for failing to pull over enough drivers.

The attorney obtained a memo in which Robinson, a lieutenant at the time, warned the officer he’d face discipline if he continued to fall short of the quota.

The officer had made 27 stops in one month instead of the required 28.

According to Rockford DPS’s annual reports from 2018 and 2019, officers made a total of 5,424 traffic stops over those two years for which they issued 363 tickets.

That’s one citation for every fifteen stops.

By comparison, Lowell Police told Target 8 its patrol officers stopped 3,246 drivers over those same two years and cited 936 of them, an average of one ticket for every three-and-a-half stops.

That’s similar to the numbers reported by the East Grand Rapids Department of Public Safety.

EGR told Target 8 it stopped 3,083 drivers in 2018 and 2019, for which officers issued 966 citations, or one ticket for every 3.2 stops.

MI SHERIFF’S ASSOC: WE NEED MORE ENFORCEMENT, NOT LESS

What those numbers mean, and why they matter, depends on whom you ask.

Matt Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, praised the Rockford Department of Public Safety.

“Rockford is a great agency (and) has a great chief,” Saxton said in a Zoom interview with Target 8.

He went on to explain why he thinks police agencies need to do more traffic enforcement, not less.

“We don’t have to look far to find a reason why we should do traffic enforcement here in Michigan or anywhere in the country. Over the last few years, we have started to see an increase in our fatal accidents,” said Saxton, who noted a spike in traffic deaths happened in 2020 despite fewer vehicles on the road during quarantine.

“During COVID, law enforcement was asked to make as few contacts with the public as possible. So during that time, there was very little traffic enforcement. So we’re seeing the result of that now with aggressive driving, speeding and an increase in fatal accidents,” Saxton said. “If people don’t want traffic laws enforced, they need to legislate to get traffic laws off the books.”

ACLU: WHY RISK DANGER OF STOP IF NOT NEEDED?

But the American Civil Liberties Union wants to see fewer discretionary traffic stops, especially amid the current tension.

“From the perspective of drivers of color, (more stops) is not necessarily a good thing,” said Mark Fancher of the ACLU of Michigan.

“Because of the historical moment that we’re in, with the police violence that has occurred, with increasing awareness if not frequency, most drivers of color, if they were not already on edge, they’re more so now. If your reason for stopping them is simply to give them a warning, given all the dangers and the risks that are associated with traffic stops right now, (educate drivers) some other way,” he urged. “Every traffic stop carries with it an element of danger for all involved. So why make them if you don’t have to make them.”

In addition, Fancher said if officers don’t think a stop warrants a ticket, it raises questions about the grounds for the stop in the first place.

“If it comes to be expected that the officers are going to make all these stops and that they don’t have to issue tickets or citations when they make them, it becomes easy for the police culture to drift to a point where stops are being made just randomly and without any proper basis. That’s the risk. Whether that’s actually happening or not, we can’t know,” he said.

Fancher wants police to educate drivers through other means.

“Why not use that same energy to reach thousands of drivers by way of public service announcements or community meetings or whatever else they might do. That increases the level of safety because you reach more people and you avoid the risks that are associated with traffic stops,” he said.

Matt Saxton with the sheriff’s association urged Target 8 to examine whether Rockford’s stop practices have made its roads safer.

“You’ve got to look at more than just the number of traffic stops, or number of citations written,” said Saxton. “What’s the counter effect to that traffic enforcement?”

ZERO DEATHS OVER 5 YEARS IN ROCKFORD, LOWELL AND EAST GR

Target 8 reached out to Michigan State Police, the Department of Insurance and Financial Services and the Grand Valley Metro Council in an effort to compare crash rates.

MSP’s Criminal Justice Information Center reported Rockford had 849 crashes from 2016 to 2021, including 110 injury crashes with zero fatalities.

But making comparisons with other jurisdictions is difficult given the many factors that impact crash statistics, including traffic volumes, number of roads and intersections, and varying speed limits, among other details.

The Grand Valley Metro Council provided five years of data for Rockford from 2016 to 2020, noting the municipality had zero fatalities during that time and seven serious injury crashes.

  • Rockford: Zero fatalities, seven serious injuries
  • Walker: 15 fatalities, 110 serious injuries
  • Kentwood: 11 fatalities, 136 serious injuries
  • Wyoming: 41 fatalities, 274 serious injuries
  • East Grand Rapids: Zero fatalities, three serious injuries
  • Hudsonville: Two fatalities, 17 serious injuries
  • Lowell: Zero fatalities, nine serious injuries
  • Grand Rapids: 72 fatalities, 669 serious injuries
  • Ada: Four fatalities, 38 serious injuries
  • Cascade: 10 fatalities, 50 serious injuries

“We can therefore make the general statement that, based on the number of fatalities, Rockford’s streets were relatively safe between 2016 and 2020,” wrote Andrea Faber, Transportation Planner and Clean Air Action Program Coordinator at GVMC.

“But… many factors contribute to crashes in general, as well as the number of crashes, with larger communities seeing more crashes, on average, simply because they have more roads, and more people are driving on those roads. Road types/speeds also factor into crash rate and severity. All of this makes it difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison,” Faber concluded.

During those same five years, Lowell and East Grand Rapids also reported zero fatal accidents.

GVMC reported nine serious injury crashes in Lowell and three in East Grand Rapids. 

GVMC went on to provide crash data for seven other cities in metro Grand Rapids.