Col. Robert Williams had seen enough. The chief of the state police and a 30-year veteran had seen enough mangled bodies in car wrecks. Enough distraught and hysterical mothers and fathers.
Enough lives that could easily have been saved with the click of a seat belt.
“As a trooper, I have knocked on more than one door to tell them, ‘Your child is dead,’” Williams said.
So starting in January, he took a fresh, hard line toward seat-belt enforcement in hopes it might mean fewer Mainers — especially teenagers and young adults — were killed in car accidents because they hadn’t buckled up. But questions are being raised about whether his dictate has gone too far and become a quota.
The statistics back up Williams’ frustration:
* The percentage of passengers and drivers killed in car accidents in Maine who were unbelted jumped from 33 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2012.
* In 2012, 63 of the 111 people who died in accidents were not wearing seat belts, while in 2010, 41 of the 123 who died were not wearing seat belts.
* The largest age group of unbelted car accident victims from 1994-2012 were between 16 and 24 years old.
“Voluntary compliance has not been working,” Williams wrote in a memo to state police late last year. “A person a week is dying in a crash because they did not have their seat belt on.”
Williams told state troopers to get tough. He ordered them to aggressively enforce the state’s mandatory seat-belt law by ticketing — not just warning — seat-belt scofflaws.
“The norm will be a summons and the exception will be a warning,” Williams wrote in the memo to state troopers explaining his new enforcement program. Williams calls the program, which ran during the first three months of 2013, an “emphasis point.”
But to others, his program represents a quota.
“You will aggressively enforce seat belt violations as part of your patrol function and will issue 7 summonses for seat belt violations per month as a minimum expectation,” reads an emailed memo from a leader of one of the state’s eight troop divisions, issued in response to Williams’ directive. “This expectation will be added to everyone’s evaluation immediately.”
The emails were obtained by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and were acknowledged by Williams, but the name of the troop leader had been crossed out of the memo given to the center.
The order to issue a minimum number of violations per month and the vow to make that “expectation” an element in a trooper’s evaluation are the hallmarks of a quota system, which is illegal in a number of states, though not in Maine, according to civil liberties and defense lawyers.
Williams acknowledged in his email to troops that his directive had been translated into hard numbers by some troop commanders.
“Because of our discussion, some Troops have set an expectation that a certain number of summons be written,” Williams wrote. “While I do not believe the number of summons expected is unreasonable, my intent was never to limit your ability to use discretion. I should have made this clearer during our discussion.”
And in an interview, Williams said, “It’s not a quota; we don’t have quotas. It’s a work expectation.”
Nevertheless, the troop leader followed up Williams’ email with an emailed affirmation of the quota.
“Troops, I have been asked if the seven (7) seat belt summons expectation has been changed due to the email from Unit 1. You are still expected to comply with the expectation of Seven (7) seat belt summonses per month. Noncompliance will result in a negative performance report.”
Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said he had “never seen this clear evidence before” that some Maine police were using a quota system.
“It’s a real problem,” Heiden said. “The bottom-line concern is the danger that the police are going to make unconstitutional stops,” violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure.”
“Say an officer only sees evidence of three violations, but is being required to make seven stops,” Heiden said. “Seven stops required minus three legitimate stops equals four violations of constitutional rights. “
Bangor lawyer Richard Hartley, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “The problem is that we rely on individual law enforcement officers to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis. (If) they have their individual discretion overborne by a policy that relates their production of tickets to their job performance, it’s a dangerous slope.”
But Trooper Aaron Turcotte says the directive doesn’t bother him.
“We want this deadly trend to stop,” said Turcotte, a member of the Maine State Trooper Association’s Executive Committee. “We never heard the colonel come out and say, 'You need to do seven a month.' It was an expectation at the troop level. The colonel was right on when he says this needs to be an emphasis point.” Turcotte added that the association’s board fully supports the move.
And Williams’ boss, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, likewise supports the move.
“(In) how many of those young people’s deaths do you read the word 'ejected' from the car?” Morris said. “That’s what’s killing them.”
1995 seat-belt vote
In 1995, Maine had no mandatory seat-belt law, and the state’s rate of seat-belt use was 50 percent, according to a study published by the University of Southern Maine.
That placed Maine “fifth from the bottom of a list of all 50 states,” according to the study.
In November of that year, state voters approved, by less than one percentage point, Question 8, which asked “Do You Favor Requiring All Persons to Use Safety Belts in Motor Vehicles?" Enforcement of the law was limited: Police could only ticket drivers or passengers for seat-belt violations if they had pulled them over for another, cite-able offense.
Seat-belt use grew to 72.3 percent in 2004. But to safety advocates, it wasn’t growing fast enough. In 2007, Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union proposed giving police the power to ticket drivers or passengers as a primary offense. If police saw you weren’t wearing a seat belt, they could stop you.
The bill passed, and in the months after the law’s implementation, Maine’s daytime seat-belt use rose from 77 percent to 84 percent; nighttime use rose from 69 percent to 81 percent, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.
By 2012, daytime seat-belt use was at a record 84.4 percent, but was still less than the national rate of 86 percent.
And the rising compliance rates in Maine, while gratifying, masked a stubbornly vexing statistic: The biggest age group of unbelted victims in fatal accidents was young people between the ages of 16 and 24.
“This is a generation of people who have never been in a car, growing up, when they haven’t been in a child safety seat, a booster seat or a seat belt,” Williams said. “But all of a sudden, when they start driving on their own, at least some of them aren’t wearing their seat belts.”
Williams wants his enforcement initiative to drive down the number of deaths among young people.
“The whole purpose of this initiative is to stop knocking on people’s doors at 1 a.m. to tell them someone is dead,” he said. “The whole point is to try to keep people alive.”
Rep. Mark Dion, the former Cumberland County sheriff, is now a lawyer and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. He said he understands why Williams wants tougher enforcement — but says that the appearance of a quota will spell trouble.
“The public just reacts that the quota becomes superior to the goal," Dion said. "Not only that, when you start to back specific numbers, you’re really eroding an officer’s ability to exercise discretion. I’m sure the colonel is going to get some feedback on this.”
But former Sen. Savage, whose bill gave police primary enforcement power over seat-belt laws, said state police ends may justify the means. She said she still remembers vividly the hearing on her bill.
“We had some testimony that was heartbreaking," she said. "There just were so many losses of life. ... Not only a loss of life, but so many people were getting seriously injured and handicapped because of those injuries."
She added, "I don’t like to see the state police have numbers to try to meet. But whatever will protect the lives of teenagers, I guess I can accept.”
The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. Email: email@example.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.