This year, the month of May will bring with it a new phase in the city of Milwaukee’s efforts to curb reckless driving. A newly minted policy, which will take effect on May 1st, will allow unregistered vehicles linked with reckless driving to be towed by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD). Reckless driving in the city is a growing problem. As of April 1st, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office had tallied 72 motor vehicle deaths in 2022.
Nicholas DeSiato, chief of staff for MPD, tells 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 risen to become a top priority, rivaling violent crime and car theft. With the community asking for solutions to the problem, MPD began brainstorming how it could respond.
“So that was the impetus for launching the Traffic Safety Unit last February,” DeSiato says. The unit was busy during its first year, having issued 21,260 citations during 2021. Of those, 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 due to driver’s license violations. So far in 2022, over 2,200 citations have been issued for speeding.
DeSiato highlighted the unit’s data collection as a key component to building a strategy. Through the safety unit’s website residents can access citation data, a deployment calendar, and other resources, and also submit locations where they’ve witnessed reckless driving. Each submission, DeSiato explains, “goes directly to our analyst, and that is one of the factors in creating our deployment calendar.” He adds, “We’re very proud of that unit; they’ve done great work. But obviously, like any new initiative, it inspires follow up, measurement, re-evaluation.”
The TSU has its own dedicated analyst for its operations. “Data collection for reckless driving is really challenging,” DeSiato says. “How do you measure whether people are driving good or bad? You can’t just do total citations issued. I mean, we created a whole new unit that had a large impact on the total number of citations issued. You can look at fatal crashes, you can look at fatal crashes that are derived from reckless driving, that’s a good data point. You can look at average speeds,” he explained. The possibilities are numerous. “But I think the biggest data point is very anecdotal. Does the community feel that those streets are safer? And I think that’s an important, under-utilized tool in measuring success. It’s really tricky, right? Because if you’re looking for it, you’re going to find it.”
Tow of Unregistered Vehicles Flyer (1)
The idea of towing reckless vehicles emerged gradually out of input both from the community and other law enforcement agencies. Although it was something MPD always considered, the department’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) “precluded us from towing vehicles merely because they are unregistered,” says DeSiato. By re-examining state law and the SOP, a decision was made to not pursue a change in state law to tow any reckless vehicles. Rather, DeSiato says, “Let’s start with kind of creating a carve-out for that SOP, and allowing us to utilize our statutory authority for towing an unregistered vehicle to limited circumstances that are based on behavior.” He emphasizes that “we’re not taking ownership of this as our idea. It was a community idea. Our job is to implement it.”
Honing the SOP would also help the department avoid enforcing a de facto “poor tax” on people who can’t afford to register their cars. “So we looked at what are some of the worst of the worst types of behaviors that really would trigger a tow policy,” says DeSiato. “What is the degree of harm that would make towing your vehicle appropriate?” The portion dealing with reckless driving begins on Page 9 of the SOP, and includes four categories that would need to be met in addition to the car being unregistered in order for a tow to be initiated. Each category is also backed by a specific statute. First up is endangering safety by reckless driving, followed by exceeding posted speeds by 25 miles per hour, fleeing an officer and racing on the highway. That last basically covers drag racing on the streets.
Enforcement is only one part of the solution. “We have consistently said that there’s no silver bullet,” says DeSiato. Engineering, 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 then-acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, who was formally elected on April 15, unveiled the S.T.A.N.D for Safer Streets Plan to tackle what Johnson has called a public safety crisis. The “S” stands for safe street design, with the city envisioning ways to restructure its busiest streets to make reckless driving more difficult.
The plan also calls for pushing for various kinds of legislation, including establishing paving projects that incorporate the city’s Complete Street policy and working with the Wisconsin Department Of Transportation to adopt the city’s policies, as many of the most notorious streets for reckless driving are controlled by the state of Wisconsin. The S.T.A.N.D For Safer Streets Plan also calls for additional funding and support to the Traffic Safety Unit, partnering with the Milwaukee Public School District to expand driver’s education for youth and adults, and augment restorative justice options for youth involved in car theft and reckless driving.
The intersection between youth, car theft and the reckless driving issue is difficult to ignore. Car theft in the city rose 132% from 2020-2021, from just over 4,500 cases to over 10,000. Out of the epidemic sprang social media rumors of the so-called “Kia Boys,” an alleged group of youth who target Kia and Honda car models for theft, or reckless drive in the city. The stories appear to have gained a life of their own, with social media posts continuing to surface from people claiming to be part of a group itself ,which may or may not actually exist. Regardless of the Kia Boys’ true nature, car theft in Milwaukee has come to appear more organized over the months.
In early March, several stolen cars were recovered from car lots in Milwaukee’s North Side, where many car thefts and reckless driving incidents are concentrated. The cars sat derelict alongside dozens of others, all stripped inside and out. The lots were discovered after the owner of a stolen vehicle located a car at the lot after receiving a letter about it being towed.
MPD is continuing to investigate the case. Although details are scant, it appears the cars had been illegally towed to the lots. The lots have been linked to a company S&G Towing, and an LLC called Lincoln’s Dream. According to a Fox6 WITI report, in the fall of 2021 Milwaukee officials declined to renew the license for S&G to do private property towing. Fox6 contacted a man claiming to be the co-owner of the LLC, who stated another towing company owns the property and that the entire situation was a misunderstanding.
Under the MPD’s towing policies, towing contractors are forbidden from entering any locked vehicle. Two companies are listed as contractors with the city, City Wide Towing, and Prairie Land Towing. Private tows are covered in a different section of MPD’s tow policy. Requests for private tows are dispatched by the Parking Information Desk, and no records of private tows are maintained. Other private tow requests could be handled by the district station console operator, officers at a scene or the vehicle’s owner. After the news of early March, some residents might feel cautious about calling a tow truck.
Moving past May 1, the new tow 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 the policy, train on the best methods, and share ideas. Both the traffic safety and patrol units will be on the frontier of deploying and enforcing the tow policy. It also remains to be seen if the city will need more space to hold towed cars.
“We understand with innovation you need to be able to swallow your pride and be able to re-evaluate, objectively, after we have enough data to reflect on what’s working, and what’s not,” said DeSiato. “So we understand that the first iteration of this policy is most likely not going to be the final one. And we’ll continue to evaluate it and tweak it, and we’ll continue to get community feedback on it, and we’ll be better for it.”
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