Windsor, site of viral traffic stop, leans heavily on ticketing to fund its budget

By: - April 16, 2021 12:01 am

Windsor, population 2,700, is located 25 miles west of Norfolk on Route 460 in Isle of Wight County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The aggressive treatment of an Army lieutenant during a routine traffic stop in the tiny town of Windsor may have surprised some local residents, many of whom called video of the incident a shocking and brazen display of police misconduct.

But the stop itself did not: The town is one of a handful of jurisdictions in Virginia with a well-earned reputation for ticketing passing motorists — an approach to traffic enforcement that pads the tiny town’s budget but which Black residents suspect disproportionately targets minorities.

“I tell everybody in my family that I know or anybody coming to visit me, when you hit Windsor, slow your ass down to 35,” said longtime resident Judith Dempsey.

Like other residents, she said the dark stretch of U.S. Route 460 where officers initiated the now notorious traffic stop of Lt. Caron Nazario is known locally as a favorite spot for police to run radar and look for other potential vehicular violations. And the highway, a busy four-lane road that cuts through peanut fields and swamps to connect Hampton Roads to Petersburg, gives officers plenty of opportunities.

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For a town with a population of just 2,600 people, all that traffic enforcement turns a hefty profit. Nearly 10 percent of local revenue came from fines, which totaled $160,000 in 2013, the last year local officials submitted an audited financial report to the state. The town’s proposed budget for the coming year suggests the trend continues, forecasting seven percent of local revenues will come from fines.

Compared to most local governments in Virginia, the numbers represent an unusually large chunk of revenues. The latest figures available from the state show just four municipalities that submitted audited financial reports derived more than five percent of their revenues from fines: the city of Emporia and the counties of Greensville, Brunswick and Sussex, the latter of which is also home to a stretch of 460.

Windsor’s reliance on fines to fund town operations also stands out on a per-capita basis, coming to more than $60 per resident, compared to the statewide average of $13 per resident.

Local leaders and residents defended the police department’s enforcement of traffic laws this week, calling speeding a big problem in a town where a busy four-lane road serves as its main street.

Mayor Glyn Willis said the enforcement is motivated by safety concerns, not profit.

“We’re known as speed traps, but the reality of it is that a lot of people don’t slow down through town,” he said. “People are coming through, they’re trying to get from Point A to Point B and Windsor just happens to be the really annoying place between Petersburg and Suffolk that has three stoplights.”

Some residents shared Willis’ concerns. “Yes, the cops stop people, but you’ve got to realize it’s 35 miles per hour through here and people do 50,” said Dinah Stevenson, a retired nursing assistant, as she folded clothes at the town’s laundromat.

Others, however, were quick to note that Nazario wasn’t speeding. The traffic stop began after officers alleged they couldn’t read the temporary license plate taped to his back window through the tinting and escalated after he opted to drive about a mile at low speed to a well-lit gas station — a step police often advise but officers in this case interpreted as an attempt to flee.

Black residents of the town said that while speeding can be a problem, they believed traffic enforcement disproportionately targets minority drivers — a nationwide problem commonly described as “driving while Black.” One of the most expansive studies of the issue took place in North Carolina, where researchers found Black drivers were 64 percent more likely to be stopped by police than White drivers. The study also found that once stopped, Black drivers were more than twice as likely than White drivers to be searched, though police found contraband more often in the vehicles of White drivers.

In Virginia, police departments weren’t required to track and report demographic data on traffic stops and searches until last summer, when legislation pursued by Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, went into effect. The Virginia State Police say they plan to make the results available beginning July 1.

But court records reviewed by the Virginia Mercury suggest that Black drivers bore a disproportionate share of tickets for driving infractions issued by town police officers last year, accounting for just under half of all tickets written even though Black people make up just 23 percent of the local population and 20 percent of the state’s population.

The numbers match the perception of disproportionate enforcement among Black residents. George Weeks, a Marine Corps veteran who has lived on the main road for seven years said he saw plenty of traffic stops from his window and had no doubt Black people were more likely to be pulled over.

“We serve our country,” he said. “We shouldn’t be treated like that. We should be treated with respect. We put our lives on a battlefield, then we got to come home to this? It’s not right.”

Brandon Randleman, a Windsor native who now lives in Hampton Roads, said that when he served as student body president at Virginia State University, he often received complaints of profiling from students who traveled 460 to reach the historically Black university.

“They’ve come to me personally and said this is a speed trap zone that disproportionately affects African Americans,” he said. “And many African American students know that.”

ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga noted that disproportionate ticketing of Black residents in Ferguson, Mo., contributed to the outpouring of outrage in 2014 after an officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.

“They should not be putting their police in a situation where their ability to run the town is based on the number of tickets they’re able to write,” Gastañaga said. “It just creates a recipe for distrust and a recipe for bad policing, and it results in stuff like this.”

On that point, the policing community and the ACLU of Virginia appear to agree.

Dana Schrad, the director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said she couldn’t comment directly on the situation in Windsor, but said she’s encountered the problem before and it creates clear conflicts of interest.

“I will tell you this, there are some local governments that look to their police departments to be proactive in traffic enforcement for that reason and we tell our chiefs all the time, ‘Rise above that,’” Schrad said. “You should not have to earn your department’s budget on the road. That becomes an unethical practice.”

State lawmakers have taken steps in the past to rein in small-town speed traps, most notably in 2012 after a local sheriff in Hopewell — an office charged with operating the city jail rather than enforcing traffic laws — drew national attention for hiring a team of deputies to ticket speeders on a mile-long section of Interstate 295 that passed through the city. The department racked up as much as $2 million in fines in a single year.

While the sheriff insisted the patrols were an important public safety measure, lawmakers in the General Assembly took a dimmer view of the operation. To discourage such enforcement, they began including language in the state budget requiring local governments to turn fines over to the state if they rose above a certain threshold.

But they ended the program in 2016. Then-Del. Riley Ingram, a Republican who represented the city, championed the repeal, arguing the rule had unfairly infringed on local government decision making — and budgets.

“Local governments have got to have money,” Ingram told The Progress-Index at the time. “There’s no question about it.”

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Both Schrad and Gastañaga suggested that in areas where speeding is a legitimate safety concern, there are opportunities state and local leaders can pursue that don’t require a traffic stop by an armed law enforcement officer.

Schrad said the Chiefs of Police Association would welcome a broad legalization of speed cameras, which have been rolled out in other states to automatically mail tickets to drivers who break the law. Currently use of the devices is limited in Virginia to school and construction zones.

At the ACLU, Gastañaga said the organization opposes increasing camera-based enforcement, arguing, among other things, that it’s impossible to prove who was driving the vehicle at the time of the offense. Instead, she pointed to traffic calming measures as an alternative, which can range from radar activated signs to roundabouts.

“If we’re truly concerned about traffic in small towns, maybe we’ve built the roads the wrong way,” she said.”

But to her, the bigger issue is that the state has starved local governments of cash by limiting the kinds of taxes and fees they can implement to raise funds, which she said can lead to pressure on police departments to become revenue generators.

Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle, speaking to the media for the first time this week since the traffic stop began drawing national attention, didn’t address his town’s reputation as a speed trap. But he did say he viewed tight municipal budgets as an issue.

“One of my biggest problems is keeping good officers,” he said, complaining that employees often leave for agencies that can offer higher pay.

“I’m in competition for the best and the brightest, and with what I have to offer, sometimes I don’t necessarily get what I want.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.