Okla. police barred from enforcing traffic laws
DPS announced that police weren't allowed to enforce traffic laws on state and federal highways that run through the town
By Andrew Knittle
STRINGTOWN, Okla. — Earlier in the month, when state law enforcement officials stripped a small town police department of the authority to write traffic tickets along U.S. 69, it wasn't the first time Stringtown had been labeled a speed trap.
Not by a long shot.
In fact, Stringtown is probably Oklahoma's most notorious speed trap. Type the words "Oklahoma speed trap" into your favorite Internet search engine, and you'll be reading about the small town in southeastern Oklahoma in no time.
The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety announced Jan. 13 that Stringtown's police department no longer would be allowed to enforce traffic laws on state and federal highways that run through the town.
After an investigation — which had been requested by the state attorney general's office — it was determined that Stringtown generated too much revenue through police-related activities.
State law prohibits cities and towns from generating more than half of their revenue through the collection of traffic fine payments.
According to the most recent audit of Stringtown's finances, the town generated $483,646 in fines during fiscal year 2013. That figure represents 76 percent of all Springtown revenue.
The year before, traffic fines accounted for about the same amount of cash, or 73 percent of all revenue in fiscal year 2012.
Both totals are well above the 50-percent threshold and appear to reveal a clear violation of state law.
The recent action taken against Stringtown isn't the first time a state agency has stepped in and forced the small town to cease writing traffic tickets.
In the early 1990s, after an investigation by the state Transportation Department, the speed limit was raised to 55 mph on U.S. 69 through all parts of Stringtown.
Mike Mayberry, a former transportation department spokesman, said Stringtown had been under investigation during the 1980s, as well.
"There was a move around the first of the year to do a study of speed traps around the state," Mayberry said. "Stringtown was among many towns which have been corrected."
In the mid-2000s, Stringtown police officers were stripped of their authority to write tickets along U.S. 69, causing the department to effectively shut down. Several other towns, including Big Cabin, also had action taken against them around the same time.
The towns were targeted by Oklahoma residents who requested the investigations themselves, going straight to the state Department of Public Safety with their complaints.
More than ticket money
Unlike most towns, money generated through traffic tickets in Stringtown is of vital importance. Through the years, this stream of income has done far more than just pay the salaries of the town's police force.
In fiscal year 1983, before they processed their own traffic tickets, Stringtown generated $69,895 in total revenue.
A year later, after the town began collecting fines from tickets written by its police officers, Stringtown's revenue totaled $112,257. By the end of the decade, the town collected $513,807 in total revenue, the vast majority of it traceable to traffic tickets.
In the early 1980s, Stringtown had just three full-time city employees. After the end of the decade — six years after Stringtown officials decided to process their own speeding tickets — the town employed 20 full-time workers, six of them full-time police officers.
It is not known how many officers were working for Stringtown before the latest Department of Public Safety action. Attempts to reach town officials for comment were not successful.
Through the years, revenue from speeding tickets has been used to help build a new city hall and a new police station.
Tony Runyon, police chief of nearby Kiowa, said revenue from police activities is a kind of lifeblood for communities like Stringtown and his own town.
"It's not what it's supposed to be, but in small towns you make the best of what you have," Runyon said.
"They (Stringtown police officers) do a good service down there. It's more than just writing tickets."
Copyright 2014 The Oklahoman
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