The Village of Bel-Ridge: Recipient Of The First Limburger Cheese Award
Feature written by on Tuesday, May 23, 2000
The Cape Rock's "Limburger Cheese Award" is periodically given to those people or organizations exhibiting such repulsive, dishonest, immoral, or scandalous acts that give Democracy a bad name. Just as Limburger Cheese is offensive to the nose, the behavior of the Award Winner is offensive to common decency. The Village of Bel-Ridge, a St. Louis suburb, is the inaugural winner of this award for operating one of the most lucrative -- and downright deceitful -- ticket traps in the history of this fair state.
Kudos go to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for uncovering Bel-Ridge's activities in a series of articles (which are not readily available online, but an AP summary is online). Cold pricklies go to the other media outlets for not giving this story the attention -- and derision -- it deserves.
An engineer with MoDOT, along with a whole slew of people who were ticketed over the years, allege that Bel-Ridge police officers were manipulating a crosswalk signal on Natural Bridge Rd. in order to give fraudulent tickets. Drivers would find that the flashing yellow light would suddenly change to red when they neared the crosswalk, often giving them no time to react (Or worse, forcing them to decide between getting rear-ended or continuing through). The crux of the scandal is that pedestrians (children) were not around; the police were apparently activating the signal for the sole purpose of baiting the trap.
When confronted, the Bel-Ridge police pulled the tired old "It's not illegal" and "It's for the children" routine. If manipulating signals to entrap motorists is not illegal, then it darn well should be. If the tickets were given to improve the safety of the 20-30 children who do use that crosswalk, then how come many of the tickets were given when no children were around (as observed by the MoDOT engineer and countless victims of the trap)? Does Bel-Ridge have a flock of invisible children that motorists can't see?
Delta, and many other towns, have a reputation of operating speed traps. However, at least people ticketed in these towns really do exceed the speed limit (even if the limit if unreasonably low). Delta doesn't have speed limit signs that change from 35 to 15 anytime a car with out-of-state plates passes by, setting them up for an unjust ticket.
But that's exactly the kind of stunt Bel-Ridge was pulling.
And it was quite a lucrative ticket trap. While Delta was content to take about $8,000 per year in fines when its speed trap was fully operational, the suburb of Bel-Ridge racked up $646,030 worth of traffic tickets in 1999 -- 44.8% of the city's entire budget! State law requires that municipalities fork over anything above 45% to the Education Department. It's very convenient that Bel-Ridge was just a trifle under that limit.
With all that money, you'd think Bel-Ridge could afford to build a pedestrian overpass for the children to safely cross above Natural Bridge Rd. That would maximize safety, right? That would improve traffic flow, right? That would free up the police to focus on real crime, right? It's for the children, darnit!
Yeah, and it would also take away Bel-Ridge's source of free money.
Thankfully, the MoDOT engineer rewired the signal so that only bona fide pedestrians could activate it with a 90 second delay. Now maybe the Bel-Ridge police will Protect And Serve the interests of Citizens, and not the City Budget. Assuming they don't find some other way of placing revenue above safety and fairness.
The State Legislature session adjourned after this story broke, which is a shame, as somebody might have proposed a law that targets these kinds of disreputable actions by people who like to abuse power. The solution is simple: a town may only keep a tiny percentage of the fines they collect. Everything else is either turned over to the local school district or earmarked for highway improvements in the area (especially bypasses around these little troublesome burgs). No exceptions. This will eliminate the temptation to supplant the local budget with ill-gotten fines, forcing the police to hand out tickets strictly on the basis of safety, and nothing more.
Barney Fife used to be a joke. Now, thanks in part to Bel-Ridge, he's a standard among law enforcement. That is why we at The Cape Rock are offering the city of Bel-Ridge the first ever Limburger Cheese Award for Achievement in the Field of Screwing People Over.
They've earned it.
Update: May 29
The Post-Dispatch is now reporting that at least one accident did occur because of the ticket trap. When the light changed, one driver slammed on her brakes and was -- no surprises here -- rear ended by another driver who didn't have time to stop. Bel-Ridge's Finest were out mucking with the crosswalk controls even though no children were around. I hesitate to call this an "accident", since the local police were directly responsible for it.
So there you have it. There's no doubt that the Bel-Ridge Village "Police" are worthy recipients of our First Limburger Cheese Award. The police officers and city councilmen should darn well receive pink slips as well (or worse) for their completely undemocratic, unsafe, immoral, wreckless, greedy, just-plain-evil, corrupt, Gestapo-like behavior. But of course they won't.