It’s a moment dreaded by any driver caught speeding: the wailing of a police vehicle’s siren and the sight of flashing lights.
But for a couple of weeks every December in Boise, Idaho, anyone who’s pulled over by the city’s traffic enforcement officers for going 5 mph over the limit or for a minor infraction (like a broken turn signal or taillight) receives a sweet and unexpected surprise: a couple of candy bars instead of a ticket.
Since 2015, Boise’s traffic officers have handed out the chocolate bars as a message of goodwill and safety to area residents for the two-week period leading up to Christmas Day. And the city’s parking enforcement officers have done the same.
“It’s our way to positively interact with folks and pass along an educational safety message,” said Boise Police Cpl. Kyle Wills, 44, who is assigned to the motorcycle unit and helps train new officers.
People are often shocked when he reaches to pull out his ticket book and instead hands them two candy bars wrapped in a message about the importance of buckling up, slowing down, and driving safely.
“I tell them to enjoy one of the bars and to pay it forward and pass the other one along to somebody who they think could use a little lift,” said Wills. “They're always very grateful. Nobody wants a ticket, especially right before Christmas."
Wills said he looks forward to loading up his motorcycle's saddlebags with chocolate every holiday season.
“When you work in traffic enforcement, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for positive interaction — we’re giving out tickets all day,” he said. “So having an opportunity to give out ‘candy tickets’ and see some smiles is very rewarding.”
The annual tradition has also been a hit with his traffic-patrolling colleagues.
“Once we get into December, people start saying, ‘Merry Christmas’ to us and giving us more than a few angry looks,” said Cpl. Ryan Jones, 47. “Traffic is like fishing: I put my hook in the water and somebody bites it. All we do is enforce, enforce, enforce. Nobody likes the traffic unit."
Now that’s changing — at least for 10 to 14 days a year, said Jones.
“It's really nice to hand them that candy bar,” he said. “We tell them why we stopped them and they listen and are appreciative. It's a win-win for both. I don't want to have to worry about messing somebody's Christmas up."
According to Wills, Boise police came up with the idea for chocolate tickets about five years ago when they heard about other police departments across the country handing out gifts instead of citations.
“There was this period when lots of police departments nationally began partnering with people in their communities to do something positive,” he said. “We wondered what we could do here in Boise and that's how the idea spawned."
Typically, said Wills, the 10 officers who make up the motorcycle unit hand out between 300 and 500 sweet citations every holiday season.
“We always grab a couple of dozen bars to take with us before starting our shifts, and we hand out 10 or 15 a day,” he said.
The chocolate bars are only given to people who have committed minor infractions, like going a couple of miles over the speed limit or not using their turn signal to change lanes, said Wills.
Motorists caught running red lights, driving recklessly, or committing a violation that could put lives at risk have generally received a handwritten paper ticket, he noted.
Wills and other officers also check the license and registration of those they pull over with the intent of handing out a candy bar.
“We want to make sure that we're not giving a chocolate bar to somebody who's on the Top 10 Most Wanted list,” he said. “That probably wouldn't be very good PR for the program."
People have gotten emotional, said Wills, when he has strolled up to the driver’s window and told them that the Boise Police Department “would like to share the spirit of Christmas."