Red-light tickets earn police pizza
Rocklin Police called it the red-light award but it was also known as pizza for tickets. And it was likely illegal.
“I knew that whole thing was happening. I didn’t like it,” 17-year Rocklin Police Department veteran Dave Kert said.
Kert, a former dispatcher, Reserve Officer Coordinator and president of the Rocklin Police Officers Association, is speaking out with the hope the next police chief will prevent the alleged illegal program from happening again.
“I worked when the pizza was delivered to my shift,” Kert said. “I didn’t even take part in the pizzas because that meant tickets went up. I wondered how many people got jerry-rigged tickets.”
The number of red-light violations before and after the dinners were offered show a big jump, according to police statistics.
In May of 2003, a month before the program was announced, five drivers were cited for failing to stop at a red light in Rocklin. By July and August, when the dinners were offered to officers, the number jumped to 55 and 57 respectively, according to police.
“It went up a huge amount,” Kert said. “We have no way of knowing if they’re legitimate. It’s clear — that many tickets would not have been issued without it.”
In fact, after the award stopped in September 2003, the numbers settled down by October and November to 16 and nine violations respectively.
In a June 2003 police memo obtained by The Placer Herald from Lt. Steve Newman to Police Chief Mark Siemens, the objective of the red-light violator program was “to increase red-light violations by 25 percent from July 2003 to December 2003, from four to five per month from the Traffic Unit.”
Quotas are a violation of the California vehicle code 41603, which states in part:
“No state or local agency employing peace officers or parking enforcement employees engaged in the enforcement of this code shall use the number of arrests or citations issued by a peace officer or parking enforcement employees as the sole criterion for promotion, demotion, dismissal, or the earning of any benefit provided by the agency.”
Kert said the illegal program put officers’ integrity on the line.
“It encouraged officers to issue tickets that would normally not have been issued,” Kert said. “Would the (driver) have gotten a ticket if it weren’t for the pizza? How does it affect that citizen? Their insurance rate goes up.”
After a six-week investigation by The Placer Herald, it is still unclear if an investigation was ever conducted by the city or police officials or if anyone was reprimanded in connection with the 2003 program.
Siemens declined a request to explain the program. When the program was originally made public in 2006, Siemens told the Auburn Journal on Aug. 2 of that year “there is no such (program).”
Earlier that year, Rocklin Police Sgt. Rick Eaton filed a civil lawsuit against Siemens and the city after he said he was fired for complaining about the alleged illegal program.
Siemens’ attorney Bruce Scheidt downplays the significance of the award program.
“The city offered one pizza to an entire shift and another occasion offered a sandwich to an entire shift for writing the most tickets for the month,” Scheidt said. “The police chief apparently said ‘Well, OK, if there is controversy over it, we won’t do it.’ That was seven years ago.”
Scheidt said Eaton was fired for other reasons.
On Aug. 27, 2006, Siemens apologized in an op-ed published in the Auburn Journal. He admitted he was in error, and said he never accepted that his misconduct violated department policy or that the act should have subjected him to any discipline.
Five days earlier, in an internal police e-mail, Siemens explained his position on officers accepting gifts.
He wrote in part, “The underlying issues are, can you be bought for a cup of coffee? We are given a position of public trust expecting that we will apply the law in a fair and impartial manner, receiving personal benefit because of our position causes an ethical conflict.”
The city could not release the e-mail because a records official said it was purged from the city’s e-mail system. But it was obtained by The Placer Herald from court documents filed by the plaintiff in the case.
Kert said Siemens did not deserve to be fired, but said he should have been disciplined in some way.
“A censure at the very least,” Kert said. “I seem to feel that when chiefs and the higher ups do something illegal, they get away with it because no one is going to touch him. Most people are afraid to.”
On Nov. 14, 2006, a citizen named Debbie Becker-Browning complained to the Rocklin City Council demanding Siemens be held accountable.
“I want to know why the chief, if police can go to various news channels and newspapers saying something didn’t exist, and he’s still employed here,” Becker-Browning told the council.
She could not be reached for comment.
It is unclear if the council investigated the claim.
New City Manager Rick Horst told The Placer Herald he was unaware of the program.
City staff told The Placer Herald they could not locate any report to council from the Police Department regarding the red-light award program. Current and former Rocklin City Council members declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation.
But Kert said the city had an obligation to do something.
“I think they have an obligation to look into complaints from citizens,” Kert said.
Kert is concerned the only punishment will be the Rocklin taxpayers who will foot the bill for the ongoing litigation with Eaton and any potential settlement. Right now, a jury trial hinges on a decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit that has been asked to rule if Siemens and former Rocklin City Manager Carlos Urrutia can be held personally responsible for claims brought by the lawsuit. That decision is expected at anytime.
Siemens is poised to retire next week.
2003 Red Light Violations
Source: Rocklin Police
* Pizza incentive in progress during months in bold
Rocklin Police Chief Mark Siemens' retirement at a glance
Retirement date: March 31, 2011
Pension: $158,101 annually through his CalPERS pension; Siemens also receives health benefits, cell phone allowance, deferred compensation, city-owned vehicle for business and personal use during employment