Chicago's top-ticketing suburbs

A Bull Valley police car sits obscured by trees. (Stacey Wescott/Tribune)

David Leonhart knew Bull Valley's reputation.

For years friends and relatives had warned him that the police there hide near spots where the speed limit drops.

His confirmation came one afternoon last year. A cruiser came from out of nowhere, the officer alleging Leonhart had gone 48 in a 35-mph zone. The gray-haired retiree pleaded for a warning. He had a clean record. But he got a ticket.

The $125 fine cemented the town's reputation in his mind: "They're heartless."

And they're also proficient. Very proficient.

Bull Valley's small police force ticketed more than 400 drivers per officer last year, a rate that topped the region, according to a Tribune analysis. Compare that with towns of similar population — Tower Lakes, Maple Park or Holiday Hills — with rates of 45, 44 and 31, respectively. Or with Chicago, with a rate of 10.

Rounding out the list of toughest ticketers were towns that varied dramatically in wealth, size and location: Park City, Carol Stream, McCook and Evergreen Park. Each cited speeders and other traffic violators at rates at least three times the area average.

Deciding whether robust enforcement is good or bad can depend on point of view. Motorists passing through may be angered by a perceived speed trap set up to cash in on their commutes. But the locals may be happy that the cops try to rein in drivers zipping by their homes.

On Trib Nation, reporter Joe Mahr explains the steps taken to gather and sift data for this story.

The Tribune looked at each town's practices to help Chicagoland drivers judge if and when local enforcement veers from aggressive to oppressive.

The newspaper analyzed a database compiled by the state of all traffic stops and looked at a range of ticketing tactics that are objectionable to civil libertarians, traffic safety experts or others in law enforcement. Among them: Do police use subterfuge to nail violators? Do they ticket everyone, even drivers who could learn just as much from a warning? Do they focus too much on speeders and not enough on driving drunk or unbuckled?

Each of the five towns had at least one controversial area of enforcement. They defended their practices as perhaps unpopular but necessary to save lives or nab criminals.

"I believe in enforcement," said McCook Chief Frank Wolfe. "It helps cut down the traffic violations, (helps) cut down the traffic crashes in this town, and … yeah, it does put some money in our pocket, which obviously every village needs some now."

No. 1: Bull Valley

The McHenry County hamlet of about 1,000 residents has no major highway, no schools, no downtown even. It doesn't seem like the kind of place that could be a speed trap.

Yet the town's specialty is ticketing speeders — more than 1,600 drivers last year.

Longtime Chief Norbert Sauers defends the aggressive enforcement: "We're a small town. We get a lot of traffic cutting through, and we don't have a lot of (911) calls to respond to."

It's justified, too, he said, "given the number of DUI convictions and traffic-related accidents."

It's hard to verify that. State data on 2009 crashes isn't available, and earlier data isn't easily comparable. The town itself hasn't studied in detail where motorists crash or why, an approach recommended by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a national police group that offers model policies for departments.