Built for Speed: Waldo, Florida

Police car

Image courtesy of Fotalia.

Built For Speed; Waldo, Florida
| published October 5, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

The world-famous Waldo, Florida speed trap is hurtling toward the history books at breakneck speed, with the Waldo City Council voting 4-1 on September 30 to disband the police department, according to News4Jax and other press sources.

In a city council meeting packed to capacity and others standing in the aisles, the powers-that-be decided that Waldo's law enforcement functions will be turned over to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office starting October 31. The local unit will be disbanded, although its five officers will be on paid administrative leave while seeking employment elsewhere.

Considering that almost half of Waldo's annual revenue comes from speeding tickets, it seems disingenuous that city leaders would claim budgetary shortfalls as the reason for cutting these jobs. Allegations surfaced recently concerning an unlawful ticket quota, deceptive court appearances, and unethical evidence storage, according to the Gainesville Sun.

In a town with just over 1,000 residents, generations of drivers have faced a gauntlet of six different speed limits within a scant two miles of Highway 301. They also have received unwanted publicity from a 60 Minutes investigative piece and a recent Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation into illegal activities, including speeding-ticket quotas (under the Florida Constitution, quotas have been illegal for decades).

Council members were saddened by being forced to make the decision, but were unable to reach any other agreement or solution.

"I don’t want to be put in this situation again, really," said City Councilman Irvin Jackson. "To tell some people who work hard for me all the time that we don’t want you around anymore.”

Officer Roy Steadman and his wife Christina have a major task ahead of them—finding another full-time job for the veteran officer.

“We’ve got two girls at the house and one of them is chronically ill and that throws this a little,” Steadman said. “Losing the jobs and losing the benefits will be a hard hit for us.”

Numerous passionate residents addressed the meeting, worrying about potential delayed response times and an increase in local crime brought on by a weakened police presence. Following more than ninety minutes of intense debate on the issue, including tearful pleas from residents to find another solution, the council said dissolution was its only option.

In August, Waldo Police Chief Michael Szabo was accused of having a ticket quota, which runs awry of Florida law. The officers claimed the 14-year department employee forced them to write 12 tickets per 12-hour shift or face "harsh consequences."

Since the 1940s, Waldo has been known to thousands of residents of dozens of states as a town built on speeding tickets. Long before the interstate highway system was built—meaning long before Florida’s I-95 and I-75—travelers and tourists alike faced the consequences of a short succession of speed limit signs placed in what many have argued was an arrangement largely impossible to comply with. Rumors had persisted for decades that the Waldo cops had quotas, but there was rarely concrete evidence of any such system…until recently. Some officers claim that their jobs depended on being able to write a dozen tickets on each shift.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) named Waldo—which sits roughly halfway between Jacksonville and Gainesville—one of the two worst “traffic traps” in the nation. For several decades, professors and counselors at the University of Florida in Gainesville frequently warned their students to be wary of the speed trap. Some African-American groups claimed that racial profiling played a part in some of the ticket-writing, but in fact—as almost everyone familiar with Waldo’s main road knows—everyone was ticketed equally for their sins, from military men and women, to college students, to truck drivers, to out-of-state tourists simply on their way to Busch Gardens or Silver Springs.

One angry motorist of economic means even once famously bought billboard space on the outskirts of town, just to warn arriving drivers of the impending hazard. According to statistics culled by reporters at the Gainesville Sun and other regional newspapers, Waldo’s seven cops—in a town of about 1000—wrote a staggering 11,603 traffic citations in the 12 months of 2013. Compare that to Gainesville, population 128,000 (plus 50,000 college students), whose 300-plus police force wrote a paltry 25,461 tickets in the same one year period, or, slightly more than twice the number of citations of tiny Waldo.

Still, despite nearly a century of complaints about the town, little was done until the recent fracas when many of the town’s officers began to complain through official law enforcement channels that the mandate to write speeding tickets distracted from more important law enforcement priorities. Local residents say that many drivers do, in fact, exceed the posted speed limits through town, but they hope that potential changes to will make it easier for drivers to comply with the law. Some locals even welcomed the state’s investigation (and other outside inquiries), claiming that the police actions constituted harassment and left Waldo with one of the worst reputations for police behavior in the country.

Initially, Chief Szabo was suspended, then, later resigned following as investigation into the accusations of improprieties, especially the concern that Waldo was in violation of state law. Some have suggested that numerous local officers had—individually and in small groups—contacted FDLE and other state agencies. About half of Waldo’s 2013 $1 million budget came from “court fines,” (mostly tickets issued).

Timothy Logan, who's worked six years for the department, knows the decision by the city to dismantle the police department will cripple his family financially, but hopes to continue pursuing employment in law enforcement.

“We spoke our mind. We told the city what the issues were, and it was up to them to fix them, and this is the outcome unfortunately,” he said. “I don’t fault the city and think it was in their best interest.”

Another city council meeting is scheduled Oct. 14, where the group will discuss finding funds to pay officers for overtime, vacation and sick time they have accrued. The Alachua County Sheriff's Office also faces budgetary concerns, now being forced to maintain a police presence in the community. A spokesperson said one or two deputies may be assigned to the Waldo area, and hopefully service for residents will be uninterrupted.

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