The Cuyahoga Falls Mayor’s Court — launched just three years ago — is now the third-busiest mayor’s court in Ohio, handling more than 7,600 traffic and misdemeanor cases last year.

And that’s just fine with police Chief Thomas Pozza, who says he wants the community to have a reputation for being tough on crime and traffic enforcement.

“The more cars you stop, the more crooks you’re going to catch,” said Pozza, a Cuyahoga Falls native who was sworn in as chief last year and has been with the department for more than three decades. “The more fish hooks you have in the water, the more fish you’re going to catch. ... That is the philosophy that I have brought into the department.”

The Ohio Supreme Court this month released its 2011 Mayor’s Court Summary, which provides a statistical breakdown of the 318 mayor’s courts in the state. Overall, the courts handled a record-low number of cases last year.

The caseload fell to 297,895 statewide, the lowest since the Supreme Court began tracking mayor’s court activity eight years ago.

Officials attributed the decline to fewer traffic tickets being handed out statewide.

But the caseload is rising in Cuyahoga Falls. The court handled 4,354 cases in 2009, 5,106 in 2010 and 7,619 last year.

It should be no surprise the Cuyahoga Falls court is busy. With a population of 49,652, the city is the largest community in Ohio with a mayor’s court.

Pozza’s emphasis on traffic stops hasn’t hurt, either.

Falls ranks third

In terms of caseload, Cuyahoga Falls trailed only Reading and Lockland, which are both in Hamilton County. Those communities — with less than one-third of the population of Cuyahoga Falls combined — handled 9,598 and 8,170 cases, respectively.

Many smaller mayor’s courts are accused of using traffic citations to generate money for their community.

Mayors and police chiefs can be touchy when discussing the subject. Many don’t want to be perceived as too aggressive when it comes to traffic enforcement and accused of running speed traps. They also don’t want to be viewed as not doing anything.

“We look at it as a safety issue and not a revenue-producing issue,” Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Robart said.

Pozza agreed, adding that patrol officers have too much integrity and wouldn’t go along with such a policy. He said he wants his officers to make traffic stops because you never know what else you’ll find.

For example, drug charges and arrests for outstanding warrants are up because officers are doing old-fashioned, nosy police work during traffic stops, he said.

“The whole philosophy isn’t to write tickets but emphasize police presence and make the bad guys think twice before they come in Cuyahoga Falls,” the chief said.

He tells the story from years ago about two burglars breaking into a restaurant and police catching them in the act.

“We’re leading the two bad guys to the police cars to take them to jail, and the one crook looks over at the uniform and sees that it says Cuyahoga Falls police,” Pozza said. “He says to the other guy ... ‘Had I known we were in Cuyahoga Falls, we wouldn’t have done this. We thought we were in Akron.’

“That’s the kind of image and reputation that I want to get out there to the bad guys.”

Move prompts new court

The city started its mayor’s court after the local municipal court, which serves multiple communities, moved from Cuyahoga Falls to Stow.

Ohio law allows cities and villages with more than 100 residents and without a municipal court to conduct mayor’s court. The courts hear only cases involving local ordinance violations, and local and state traffic laws.

“It’s going great,” Robart said. “When we were the host community [for municipal court], it cost us $250,000 a year, and now with mayor’s court last year we grossed $750,000 to the good. We do have some magistrate and other expenses, but obviously the pluses far outweigh the minuses for us.”

The village of Hartville in Stark County also has seen its mayor’s court get busier thanks to a new police chief.

Chief Larry Dordea took over in 2009. Mayor’s court cases climbed from 99 that year to 561 last year. Even with the increase, police aren’t writing an inordinate number of citations.

“The reason we write more tickets today is because our officers are better focused, better trained and better led, and I would even submit even better equipped,” Dordea said. “I require them to get out and work.

“It’s not that we are a community trying to be a speed trap. We want to keep our accidents to a minimum and make sure the citizens and the people who travel through the village are safe, and traffic enforcement is a component of that.”

Richfield numbers fall

The caseload is headed in the opposite direction in the village of Richfield. The number has fallen from a high of 1,068 in 2006 to 499 last year.

Police Chief Keith Morgan attributed the decline to having fewer officers available and a mild winter.

Some officers had been out with injuries, and instead of focusing on traffic enforcement, police dealt with neighborhood calls, he said.

A mild winter also meant fewer accidents, Morgan said.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.