David Leonhart knew Bull Valley's reputation.
For years friends and relatives had warned him that the police there hide near spots where the speed limit drops.
His confirmation came one afternoon last year. A cruiser came from out of nowhere, the officer alleging Leonhart had gone 48 in a 35-mph zone. The gray-haired retiree pleaded for a warning. He had a clean record. But he got a ticket.
The $125 fine cemented the town's reputation in his mind: "They're heartless."
And they're also proficient. Very proficient.
Bull Valley's small police force ticketed more than 400 drivers per officer last year, a rate that topped the region, according to a Tribune analysis. Compare that with towns of similar population — Tower Lakes, Maple Park or Holiday Hills — with rates of 45, 44 and 31, respectively. Or with Chicago, with a rate of 10.
Rounding out the list of toughest ticketers were towns that varied dramatically in wealth, size and location: Park City, Carol Stream, McCook and Evergreen Park. Each cited speeders and other traffic violators at rates at least three times the area average.
Deciding whether robust enforcement is good or bad can depend on point of view. Motorists passing through may be angered by a perceived speed trap set up to cash in on their commutes. But the locals may be happy that the cops try to rein in drivers zipping by their homes.
The Tribune looked at each town's practices to help Chicagoland drivers judge if and when local enforcement veers from aggressive to oppressive.
The newspaper analyzed a database compiled by the state of all traffic stops and looked at a range of ticketing tactics that are objectionable to civil libertarians, traffic safety experts or others in law enforcement. Among them: Do police use subterfuge to nail violators? Do they ticket everyone, even drivers who could learn just as much from a warning? Do they focus too much on speeders and not enough on driving drunk or unbuckled?
Each of the five towns had at least one controversial area of enforcement. They defended their practices as perhaps unpopular but necessary to save lives or nab criminals.
"I believe in enforcement," said McCook Chief Frank Wolfe. "It helps cut down the traffic violations, (helps) cut down the traffic crashes in this town, and … yeah, it does put some money in our pocket, which obviously every village needs some now."
No. 1: Bull Valley
The McHenry County hamlet of about 1,000 residents has no major highway, no schools, no downtown even. It doesn't seem like the kind of place that could be a speed trap.
Yet the town's specialty is ticketing speeders — more than 1,600 drivers last year.
Longtime Chief Norbert Sauers defends the aggressive enforcement: "We're a small town. We get a lot of traffic cutting through, and we don't have a lot of (911) calls to respond to."
It's justified, too, he said, "given the number of DUI convictions and traffic-related accidents."
It's hard to verify that. State data on 2009 crashes isn't available, and earlier data isn't easily comparable. The town itself hasn't studied in detail where motorists crash or why, an approach recommended by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a national police group that offers model policies for departments.
As for DUIs, the town made five arrests in 2009, but only one came from a traffic stop. The other four resulted from officers responding to crashes.
Compare that with its record for speeding.
Nearly five times a day, on average, it curbed someone for driving over the limit.
The town gives less wiggle room on its tickets than other places, too. Four-fifths of them were written for going less than 15 mph over the limit, 2009 court data showed. Most communities in McHenry County wrote the majority of their speeding tickets for higher speeds.
And only one in 10 of those stopped by police escaped a ticket. Across the region, a third of stopped motorists get warnings.
Little about Bull Valley fits the norm. Its main business is a country club. The town has many f large horse farms. The police force is headquartered in a 19th century house that some believe is haunted.
The town spooks Randy Myatt for a different reason: He's gotten two tickets there since 2002. Myatt, 51, says he travels regularly as a salesman and is frustrated at how officers there hide to nab speeders.
That's a common complaint on speed-trap message boards. Posters warn of officers hiding behind embankments or bushes, tucked into driveways, or even on a wooded dirt trail, often at points where the speed limit drops. Sauers declined to discuss his department's tactics.
Myatt has paid $265 in fines and went to traffic school for the last ticket. The lesson he took away? "Stay out of Bull Valley."
No. 2: Park City
The blue-collar town just west of Waukegan is home to an unusual trend: It's stopping fewer drivers, but giving more of them tickets.
The trend, which officials can't explain, helped boost the town's share of traffic fine revenue to more than $200,000 last year, according to court data.
The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies pushes the use of discretion in traffic stops — saying the goal is to reduce crashes, not collect money, and that some drivers can be steered in a safer direction with warnings, not tickets. In past years, the use of warnings has grown regionally.
But not in Park City, a suburb of 6,700 anchored by a neighborhood of mobile homes that sits northeast of the busy interchange of Skokie Highway and Belvidere Road.
In 2007, it stopped 3,486 drivers and cited 2,590 of them — about 74 percent.
Last year, it stopped just 3,000 drivers but cited 2,845 of them — about 95 percent.
Its use of discretion last year was the lowest of any suburb with aggressive enforcement.
Walter Holderbaum became the suburb's chief in 2007, when the trend began. He said he's gotten no pressure to boost tickets from city fathers, nor has he pressured officers to do so — even as the town has struggled to replace a fleet of aging squad cars so prone to breakdowns that, for a couple of days, he had to patrol in his family car.
"Officers do have discretion," Holderbaum said. "They just seem to write a lot of tickets. There's no quotas."
The chief said the intense patrols are about saving lives and fighting crime. The town, he said, hasn't had a traffic fatality in years, despite its heavy load of commuters.
"We don't want to look like we're the villains," he said. "It's a safety issue."
One city alderman isn't convinced.
"I'm not too much for being aggressive," said Ald. Eugene "Jack" Palmieri. "They are counted on to serve and protect, and I don't think they do that when they are running radar."
No. 3: Carol Stream
Patrol Cmdr. John Jungers knows the one word that some drivers use to describe officers in this far west suburb.
"They call us the Nazis," Jungers said. "We take a lot of heat for it. It'd probably be easier for our (local town) politicians to say, 'Hey, knock it off.' But they see the benefits of it."
These include, he said, the fact that the middle-class suburb of 40,000 — with a heavy traffic load along North Avenue — hasn't had a traffic fatality since 2005.
Police credit smart strategies, among them dedicating a unit just for traffic, snaring grants to pay for boosted patrols and analyzing crash and crime patterns to target enforcement — approaches favored by traffic safety experts.
Since 2006, the community has replaced an emphasis on speeding with a focus on seat belts — the most common reason drivers are now stopped there. Officers say the lack of seat belts is a chief killer on the highways, costing even those who buckle up in boosted health insurance premiums.
Police also have pushed drunken-driving enforcement, repeatedly leading DuPage County in DUI arrest rates per officer.
These traffic enforcement efforts have garnered awards, including a second-place finish in a national law enforcement contest. But back home, the department's methods can be controversial.
Town resident Ralph Bucci, 65, got a $75 ticket last year for rolling through a stop sign. "I'm an old-timer from Chicago and Cicero, where they let you off if you're a local resident and have a good driving record, which I do," he said. "But I didn't get a break, and I've lived here 26 years."
Using another tactic that has drawn fire from critics, the department this year joined an area police trend to charge an extra $500 impound fee — separate of any criminal fines — to motorists caught for specific crimes, ranging from DUI to suspended licenses. So far this year, it's collected about $350,000 from just over 700 tows.
Civil libertarians complain that such impounds have few safeguards to ensure the innocent aren't forced to pay up or lose their cars.
The department also helped pioneer another trend in policing that has prompted criticism — going incognito to nab violators. Officers have hidden in bushes, behind disabled vehicles and beside lampposts to conduct stings for speeding as well as seat belt and child seat violations.
Among their disguises: homeless wanderer, garbage collector, postal carrier, public works employee, landscaper and utility worker.
Sgt. Brian Cooper said the tactic helps officers better see when a driver or passenger isn't properly buckled, and publicity about the stings makes speeders slow down even when they don't spot a squad car.
Still, the department cuts its share of slack to speeders, court and state data showed. Its average ticket is for 16 mph over the limit, similar to other DuPage County departments. And a third of all drivers stopped get warnings — also about average.
No. 4: McCook
The tiny southwest suburb is definitely not a speed trap — not even a tenth of its stops are for speeding.
But it may be the place to avoid for those with broken taillights, cracked windshields or any other vehicle defect.
Police make half their stops for equipment violations. They make a fourth for seat-belt violations. Both can be lucrative because these tickets are typically handled by the village rather than the courts.
Known as "P-tickets," they have been around since at least the 1980s. Depending on whom you ask, the "P" stands for parking, as in how parking tickets are handled, or for points, as in the tickets stay off the books so there are no points on a driving record.
The courts banned their use for moving violations a decade ago — leading many towns to abandon them. But McCook still uses them for most nonmoving violations. Last year the town of 240 residents collected nearly $160,000 from P-tickets.
The practice frustrates driver advocates such as Gary Biller, from the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association: "You know you can always stop someone and say, 'Your rear light isn't working. Pay me $50.' … It almost sounds like you're in Mexico or something."
Chief Wolfe defended the process, saying it's easier to avoid the courts and motorists can appeal to judges. And the enforcement strategy isn't about making money, he said.
Settled around quarries and hosting heavy industry, the community near Interstate Highway 55 has high truck traffic, so officers often look for illegal defects that can lead to crashes — from broken mudflaps to poorly secured loads. Cars aren't immune from scrutiny either, with police trained to give vehicles the once-over to ensure they pass legal muster.
Officers cruise the town looking for violations. On the busiest shifts, with three officers on patrol, one is dedicated to traffic.
Those patrols are not without controversy. The town has one of the area's worst rankings in the state's annual racial profiling study.
The data said that 12 percent of motorists passing through McCook are minorities, but minorities make up nearly half the traffic stops.
That would indicate African-Americans and Hispanics are four times as likely as non-Hispanic Caucasians to be stopped. But Wolfe said he thinks the state vastly underestimated the number of minorities driving through town. He also said his officers don't pick on minorities.
Regardless of whom the officers stop, the data confirmed that almost everybody gets a ticket.
By policy, officers are judged on "ticket production" — where "deficiencies" below the department average can result in everything from a verbal warning to firing.
Wolfe said it's not a quota. Officers are compared with their peers and judged on the number of stops, not tickets, he said.
"If you're the traffic car for eight hours, and you're not doing anything else, you should be making at least six, seven traffic stops," he said.
No. 5: Evergreen Park
A recent weekday-morning traffic stop on 87th Street illustrates the success of — and concerns over — Evergreen Park's aggressive traffic enforcement.
An officer pulled over a 1998 Cadillac for having an obstructed windshield — the kind of offense that police in some places may not give a second thought. But it prompted the arrest of driver Michael Rodgers for allegedly having a suspended license, no insurance and a handgun on his hip as he listened to a police scanner.
To Chief Michael Saunders, it's an example of aggressive traffic enforcement helping fight crime.
But the arrest became one of many where the department cashed in, even before the defendant went to court.
Just like Carol Stream, Evergreen Park has an impounding program. The difference is that Evergreen Park charges $600 — one of the highest fees in the area — and is one of the Chicago region's most prolific towers.
The ordinance allows tows and fees for cars used in a host of alleged crimes, including drug possession, DUIs, or anyone driving on a license that is suspended or expired for more than six months. Impounding nearly one in 12 cars stopped last year, the town collected more than $500,000 from the extra tow fines — double its take from traditional traffic court fines, according to an analysis of village and state data.
Saunders said the department isn't looking to cash in on traffic stops. Its officers give warnings to a third of stopped motorists. And the towing ordinance applies only to more serious crimes committed with a car — not typical traffic stops.
If the town scores high for enforcement, so be it, he said.
The community doesn't follow national guidelines to crunch crash data so it can better target enforcement. Nor does it focus much attention on two other dangers: drunken or unbuckled drivers. Saunders said it's because the town doesn't have many deaths and injuries from drunken driving or lack of seat belts.
Rather, the chief said, traffic enforcement is used to target crime. He credits this approach for one reason the community — bordered on three sides by Chicago — solves a greater percentage of its crime than most suburbs. Criminals drive, too, and often are bad about keeping licenses and insurance valid.
"Are we being oppressive by doing that? Our community doesn't think so." Saunders said.
Rodgers, 38, has a different take.
Records show he has a valid firearm owners ID, his conviction record includes only traffic tickets, and his license was suspended over unpaid parking tickets. He told the Tribune he was stopped on his way to a gun range, had the gun in the glove box, and used the scanner for his towing business. The officer, he said, arrested him too quickly for him to prove he had insurance.
With police disputing part of that, it's the kind of he-said-she-said a judge can sort out. But a judge wasn't set to hear his case for weeks, if not months.
So, to get his car back, Rodgers had to immediately pay the town $600 plus $200 in towing fees for, in his words, "having an air freshener in the window."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun