FORT WORTH -- Every day, dozens of Fort Worth police officers are expected to check a municipal computer system that alerts them to court summonses on traffic violations.But every day, many of those officers miss court. Some aren't set up to log in to the system.For others, it slips their mind."If it's not something that's done every day, you tend to forget," police Sgt. Steve Hall said. "It's human nature if you don't repeat a pattern daily."Fort Worth could boost its last-place standing in traffic fine collections among Texas' largest cities if it got more officers to court, say Municipal Court officials, judges and police officers in other North Texas cities."A lot of large agencies, traffic court is not a priority," said Dean Winters, police chief in Crandall, southeast of Dallas. "It is for us."In the last five years, the Fort Worth Municipal Court dismissed 35,500 violations because officers failed to appear -- about 1 in every 10 cases, records show. In 2010, that cost the city up to $3 million in uncollected fines for tickets that couldn't be prosecuted, court estimates showed.Critics blame the court's troublesome computer system, known as CourtView.The technology was deployed in 2005 to offer full automation and help the city collect millions in fines. Instead, the computer system remains a cyber-hiccup, with numerous violations falling "into virtual limbo," according to an independent assessment conducted for the city this year.When it comes to alerting police of court dates, the computer system cannot align court dates with police schedules because it lacks a centralized source for officer schedule data, according to the report by the Azimuth Group.With no "central" data source, the court can't effectively alert officers to trial dates and has no way to update officer schedules or establish reliable dates to summon them to court, the assessment showed.When officers miss court, that triggers a "reset" of cases, worsening the backlog of hundreds of thousands of old traffic tickets, the Azimuth report said.In November, the Star-Telegram reported that the city's docket is jammed with cases that date as far back as 1994.About one month later, court officials recommended that 670,378 old cases be removed from the court's dockets under a procedure that requires a judge's approval.The Municipal Court's chief justice and city prosecutors have given the nod to the action, and the City Council is expected to discuss it in January.Mayor Betsy Price says she wants to see the no-show police problem fixed."Anytime we have dismissals like that ... it's a problem," she said.When cases get too old, police officers would be wasting their time in court, she said."Officers can't remember those cases," Price said.Police Sgt. Pedro Criado said the department is working with court officials to boost attendance."We are and have been evaluating our processes to increase overall efficiency," Criado wrote in response to questions from the Star-Telegram.Court officials say they are working to improve the system."It's a very positive thing," said Dakisha Boone, assistant director of the Municipal Court. "There are some capabilities we have above and beyond that we're looking for."Criado could not provide details on how the department is working with the courts to make improvements."As far as changes go, there is nothing specific I can go into, but the courts are changing their business model to increase productivity," he wrote.If the city wants improvements, it needs a computer system that can track cases, and officer appearances must be a priority, other municipal officials said.In Lewisville, "that's very important to us," Municipal Court Manager Sue Kennedy said. "And it's important to the Police Department" that officers show. If they don't, she said, "it reflects on them."Some Fort Worth officers say things worked better before the computer system was in place.Today, a police court liaison shoots the court an email with an Excel spreadsheet that contains police schedules. Court clerks then manually enter those schedules into the computer system. But when schedules change, updates don't occur, Azimuth said.Before the city bought CourtView, Fort Worth police relied on a briefing each day to alert them to court dates, Hall said.Supervisors would conduct roll call and provide notice to every officer who was scheduled for court in the next 24 to 72 hours."The supervisor would go over any updates," Hall said.Bedford still uses a roll call to notify officers. A patrol secretary goes to the court to share the patrol schedule and information about which officers are working day and night.In addition, the department issues several reminders on advisory notices posted monthly and weekly."We expect them to be there," Bedford Police Chief Roger Gibson said.It's important, Gibson said, to get officers to court. "It's the final step in the process for the determination of guilt or innocence, and officer attendance ... is important to that," Gibson said.Lewisville Judge Brian Holman said that, money aside, any court's primary responsibility is to ensure justice."What I'm concerned about is that people respond to the court process," he said."That's why we use a subpoena rather than an invitation."Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report.Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705
What it means
About 35,500 cases set for trial by Fort Worth's Municipal Court were dismissed in the last five years because police officers failed to appear. The dismissals have financial consequences.
In 2010, 34,610 jurors were seated for 3,461 scheduled court actions (trials) in cases that were dismissed because officers failed to appear. Each juror is paid $6 to $10 a day. The unused time to seat jurors cost the city $207,660 in payments.
In 2010, 7,615 cases were dismissed because officers failed to appear. On average, the city collected $400 in fines for each "guilty" case. If at least half those cases had resulted in a "guilty" finding, the city would have collected more than $1.5 million in fines. If all the cases had, the city would have collected more than $3 million in fines.
Source: Fort Worth Municipal Court
Fort Worth had the lowest level of municipal court collections in 2011 among the state's largest cities, according to the state comptroller.
San Antonio: $11,507,542
El Paso: $7,922,866
Fort Worth: $6,106,925
Source: Texas comptroller