This year, May will bring with it a new phase in the City of Milwaukee’s efforts to curb reckless driving. A new policy, which takes effect May 1, will allow unlicensed vehicles linked to reckless driving to be towed by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD). Reckless driving in the city is a growing problem. As of April 1, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office had recorded 72 motor vehicle deaths in 2022.
Nicholas DeSiato, chief of staff for the MPD, told the Wisconsin Examiner that the pressure started mounting about a year and a half ago. Reckless driving as a public safety and engineering issue had become a top priority, rivaling violent crime and auto theft. As the community demanded solutions to the problem, MPD started thinking about how they might respond.
“So that was the impetus to launch the Road Safety Unit last February,” DeSiato says. The unit was occupied during its first year, having issued 21,260 citations in 2021. Of these, 11,973 were issued for speeding, including nearly 2,800 issued for speeds exceeding 25 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. Another 3,461 citations were issued for driver’s license violations. So far in 2022, over 2,200 speeding tickets have been issued.
DeSiato pointed out that unit data collection was a key part of developing a strategy. Through the Security Unit’s website, residents can access citation data, a deployment schedule, and other resources, as well as places where they have witnessed reckless driving. Every submission, DeSiato explains, “goes directly to our analyst, and that’s one of the factors in creating our deployment schedule.” He adds: “We are very proud of this unit; they did a good job. But obviously, like any new initiative, it inspires follow-up, measurement, re-evaluation.
The TSU has its own analyst dedicated to its operations. “Collecting data for reckless driving is really difficult,” says DeSiato. “How do you measure whether people are driving well or badly? You cannot simply total the citations issued. I mean, we created a whole new unit that had a big impact on the total number of citations issued. You can look at fatal crashes, you can look at fatal crashes that are due to reckless driving, that’s a good data point. You can look at average speeds,” he explained. The possibilities are many. “But I think the most important data point is very anecdotal. Does the community feel these streets are safer? And I think that’s an important and underused tool for measuring success. It’s really tricky, isn’t it? Because if you look for it, you will find it.
Pamphlet on towing unregistered vehicles (1)
The idea of towing reckless vehicles emerged gradually from input from the community and other law enforcement agencies. Although it was something that MPD always considered, the department Standard operation procedure (SOP) “prevented us from towing vehicles simply because they are not registered,” says DeSiato. Upon reviewing state law and the SOP, a decision was made not to pursue a state law amendment to tow unsafe vehicles. Instead, DeSiato says, “Let’s start by creating some kind of waiver for this SOP and allow us to use our legal authority to tow an unregistered vehicle in limited behavior-based circumstances.” He points out that “we don’t take ownership of this as our idea. It was a community idea. Our job is to implement it.
Refining the SOP would also help the department avoid imposing a de facto “poor tax” on people who cannot afford to register their cars. “So we looked at what are the worst of the worst types of behaviors that would really trigger a tow policy,” DeSiato says. “What is the degree of damage that would make towing your vehicle appropriate?” The reckless driving portion begins on page 9 of the SOP and includes four categories that would need to be met in addition to the unregistered car for a tow to be initiated. Each category is also framed by a specific status. The first step is to endanger safety through reckless driving, followed by exceeding posted speeds of 25 miles per hour, running away from an officer, and racing down the highway. The latter basically covers street drag racing.
The app is only part of the solution. “We’ve always said there’s no magic bullet,” DeSiato says. Engineering, law enforcement and education are all part of the solution. Reckless driving has never been far from the minds of city officials, from the police department to the mayor’s office. In December, the office of acting mayor Cavalier Johnson, who was officially elected on April 15, unveiled the STAND plan for safer streets to deal with what Johnson called a public safety crisis. The ‘S’ stands for Safe Street Design, with the city considering ways to restructure its busiest streets to make reckless driving more difficult.
The plan also calls for pushing for various types of legislation, including establishing paving projects that incorporate the city’s comprehensive street policy and working with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to adopt city policies. , as many of the streets most notorious for reckless driving are policed by the state of Wisconsin. The STAND For Safer Streets plan also calls for additional funding and support for the Traffic Safety Unit, in partnership with the Milwaukee Public School District to expand driver training for youth and adults, and increase justice options. restorative for young people involved in car theft and reckless driving.
The intersection between youth, car theft and reckless driving is hard to ignore. Car thefts in the city increased by 132% between 2020 and 2021, from just over 4,500 cases to over 10,000. “Kia Boys”, an alleged group of young people who target Kia and Honda car models for theft or reckless driving in the city. The stories appear to have taken on a life of their own, with social media posts continuing to surface from people claiming to be part of a group themselves, which may or may not actually exist. Regardless of the true nature of the Kia Boys, car theft in Milwaukee has become more organized as the months go by.
Early March, several stolen cars were found in parking lots on the North Side of Milwaukee, where many car thefts and reckless driving incidents are concentrated. The cars lay abandoned alongside dozens of others, all stripped inside and out. The lots were discovered after the owner of a stolen vehicle located a car on the lot after receiving a letter saying it was being towed.
MPD continues to investigate the matter. Although details are scarce, it appears the cars were illegally towed to the lots. The lots were linked to an S&G Towing company and an LLC called Lincoln’s Dream. According to a Fox6 WITI report, in the fall of 2021, Milwaukee officials refused to renew the license allowing S&G to do privately owned towing. Fox6 contacted a man claiming to be the co-owner of the LLC, who said another towing company owned the property and the whole situation was a misunderstanding.
Under MPD towing policies, towing contractors are prohibited from entering a locked vehicle. Two companies are listed as contractors with the city, City Wide Towing and Prairie Land Towing. Private towings are covered in a different section of MPD’s towing policy. Private tow requests are dispatched through the parking information desk, and no records of private tows are kept. Other private towing requests may be handled by the district station console operator, on-scene officers, or vehicle owner. After the news in early March, some residents might feel cautious before calling a tow truck.
After May 1, the new towing policy will be reviewed by the end of the year and possibly adjusted with community feedback. Milwaukee police officers will also need to familiarize themselves with politics, train in best practices and share ideas. Road safety and patrol units will be at the frontier of towing policy deployment and enforcement. It also remains to be seen whether the city will need more space to accommodate towed cars.
“We understand that with innovation, you need to be able to swallow your pride and be able to re-evaluate, objectively, once we have enough data to think about what works and what doesn’t,” DeSiato said. “So we understand that the first iteration of this policy is unlikely to be the last. And we’ll keep evaluating it and tweaking it, and we’ll keep getting community feedback on it, and we’ll do better.
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