KIOWA — Even though many drivers view this small community as just another speed trap in southeast Oklahoma, Police Chief Tony Runyon said he is just protecting the residents of his town from a dangerous highway that leads into north Texas.
Motorists pulled over and ticketed by Runyon's police department call the town a speed trap.
Like many towns in this part of Oklahoma, Kiowa has a bad reputation, both in cyberspace and the real world. The ticketed — who often view themselves as victims — publicly rant about the practices and methods of the Kiowa Police Department and others like it.
Some of the towns in question are violating state law, allowing officers to write so many traffic tickets that more than half of the towns' revenue is traceable to police-related activities.
Others aren't speed traps, the tickets written by their police officers deemed appropriate by the state Department of Public Safety. But they live with the stigma just the same.
Attempts to get information from the state Department of Public Safety regarding the exact number of towns determined to be speed traps since 2004 have not been successful.
The Oklahoman requested the information from the state agency Dec. 18. To date, not a single piece of data has been received.
Once the speed trap label is determined to be appropriate for a town, the police department is no longer allowed to patrol stretches of state and federal highways inside the city limits. This typically leads to the closure of the departments, Runyon said.
“It's sad,” he said. “There are citizens that have come to rely on these officers ... so what happens to them?”
Several towns had action taken against them in the mid-2000s after a state law went into effect that allowed Oklahoma residents to request an investigation of a police department suspected of running a speed trap.
Big Cabin, Stringtown, Moffett and Shamrock were among the first towns affected by the law.
In July 2012, the town of Dickson was deemed a speed trap by the state Department of Public Safety. Last week, the town of Stringtown once again was sanctioned for writing too many traffic tickets.
Stringtown, one of the most notorious speed traps in Oklahoma, was stripped of its ticket-writing authority after a complaint was sent to the Department of Public Safety by the state Attorney General's office.
Diane Clay, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the town of Rock Island recently was investigated by the office but that it was determined the community of 650 was not a speed trap.
For police chiefs working in these so-called speed traps, they are enforcing the laws of Oklahoma, not breaking them. Runyon makes no apologies for writing so many tickets that his town looks like a speed trap — at least on paper.
In Kiowa, 17,000 cars and trucks pass through the town every day on U.S. 69. Runyon said people are coming from all over, headed toward Dallas or coming from that direction.
Criminal activity and high speeds make the highway a constant source of danger for Kiowa residents, the chief said. Other towns along U.S. 69 face similar issues.
“We see a little bit of everything,” Runyon said. “Highway 69 is considered one of the main feeder veins for drug-trafficking and human trafficking ... and those are issues that have been present for a long time. We're just now getting publicity.
“Being a small town ... with a small population ... we don't get a lot of calls for service from citizens throughout the day,” the chief said. “In the meantime, we do traffic enforcement.”
Patrolling the highway does more than pump cash into Kiowa's coffers. It also keeps U.S. 69 relatively safe, an important task considering the town's school is one side of the highway while most of the homes are on the other.
“The higher the speed, the deadlier the accident,” Runyon said of U.S. 69, which slices through the town.
“We call it the ‘blood highway.' We've seen a lot of blood on this highway. We don't go out and tell the general public, ‘You're driving on blood highway,' but they are.”
‘I fear for them'
With Stringtown's police department no longer able to write tickets, it will likely be forced to downsize significantly.
Runyon said the word is out that Stringtown's police officers “aren't going to be out there anymore.”
“I'm fearful for that town,” he said. “Stringtown is known, like we are, as a patrolled town.
“Those officers are not going to be there any more. I fear for those people of that town. Folks know they can pretty much do whatever they want down there with little or no repercussions.”