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Bounties for Traffic Stops and Brass’s Hidden Quotas?

The original controversy.

Traffic enforcement ranks sure gets a lot of people’s shorts in a twist. Probably that’s because most of the driving citizenry can imagine themselves speeding, while they feel nothing in common with rapists, killers, drug traffickers, robbers, thieves and child molesters.

Here’s a controversy that made news just last month: a Connecticut trooper commander urged his officers in an internal memo to compete with each other over who could write the most tickets and offered pizza to the shift with the highest ticket total.

While slices for citations doesn’t make my lollapalooza cut, the story had a police spokesman assuring the media that the troopers don’t have traffic stop quotas while the union President felt obliged to say that troopers don’t need to be told to issue a certain number of tickets to do their job. Plus, the story engendered plenty of police and public comment.

I asked my 83-year-old Dad, who retired from the Marine Corps and then again as a small businessman, what he thought about a competition for the most tickets with a pizza party prize.  The corners of his mouth twitched up (that’s a grin for him) and he quipped, “Sounds like the Saints’ bounties.”

Unless you live in a monastery that has cut off communication with the outside world, you’ve caught at least headlines and TV sound bites about the New Orleans Saints – the NFL football team recently wracked in a scandal because it paid bounties to its players to deliberately knock opponents out of the game.

I don’t think my Dad meant to equate slices for citations with sizable cash bonuses for intentionally injuring an opposing player. Still, that’s what first thing popped into his head.

Moreover, the intensity of the commentary and debate this story generated surprised me. From arguments asking why don’t the cops work real crimes and go bust some murderers (revealing an ignorance about traffic cop versus homicide investigator duties and the fact that way more people are killed by speeders than murderers) to anecdotal reports of the increased likelihood of being ticketed the last week of the month because cops are trying to reach their quotas, to suggestions that judges are in on the speed limit “conspiracy” because their salaries are paid by traffic fines – plenty of folks take their speeding seriously.

But there’s more to this than righteously indignant, if ignorant or hypocritical, speeders.

The bigger controversy.

Here’s what the Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement says about ticket quotas,

Law enforcement quotas for the issuance of traffic tickets (citations) are illegal. According to many police union representatives, however, they do exist in practice under other names like “performance expectations,” “performance standards,” “performance criteria,” “quantitative expectations,” “statistical targets,” and “traffic goals.” According to police ethics, quotas requiring a certain number of tickets over a certain time period would be unethical, because this could be seen as coercing law enforcement officers to issue tickets when they might not otherwise do so in order to avoid administrative reprisal or a negative work evaluation. State laws might also specify that quotas for traffic stops and traffic warnings are illegal. For instance, at least 12 states have passed laws to prohibit any law enforcement agency from requiring traffic officers to meet quotas for numbers of traffic stops or arrests. In general, rank and file police usually support such legislation … (.)

In my unscientific sampling of internet comments by cops, there is disagreement amongst the ranks. Some officers have no problem with quotas that make lazy cops get off their butts. Other officers decry quotas for the same reasons set out by the Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement.

The public, too, disagrees. Some citizens support quotas for making their communities safer and admonish “whiners” to simply obey the law. Others complain about blue-haired ladies being stopped for 5 miles over the speed limit the last day of the month in order to fund inflated salaries and benefits for cops, prosecutors and judges.

Reasonable minds may debate the ethics of ticket quotas. But, once quotas have been made illegal as a matter of statute or case law, there are legal and ethical implications to police brass hiding the practice behind job performance jargon that are a lot more serious than a pizza party.  

A quota by any other name still stinks.

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; 

~ Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet ~

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted prose means that what matters is what something is, not what it’s called.

In Arlington, Virginia, just last month, the county police department called what looked like a quota, walked like a quota and talked like a quota, a “proactivity expectation,” while the department back pedaled in headline news before rescinding it’s smelly duck.

While disclaiming any quota, an internal department memo (leaked to a local news station) titled “Proactivity expectations” set out minimum performance expectations for officers in terms of numbers of arrests, field observation reports, traffic summons and parking citations. The memo set a limit for “warnings only” at 25% of traffic stops. The memo also stated, “Consistently failing to attain these goals could result in disciplinary action.”

Maryland is one of the states that passed a statute specifically prohibiting “formal or informal quotas” or using a number of arrests of citations as “a primary criterion for promotion, demotion, dismissal or transfer.”

From sea to shining sea there’s plenty of recent news to support anecdotal statements from police union reps and cops on the internet that quota practices exist,

·         $2 million awarded to Los Angeles officers who alleged ticket quota,

·         Whistle-blower traffic warden who revealed 10-a-day ticket quota gets £20,000 payout because he can’t return to work,

Whatever you call it, placing formal or informal enumerated expectations on officers for citations, tickets and arrests, as opposed to stops and contacts, is a quota. Trying to dodge the spirit of quota prohibitions by cloaking them in job performance jargon looks bad because it is bad. What message about ethical conduct does the brass send the front line with such ethical contortionism?

I now have a new ethical scenario to add to my police ethics training.

You are assigned to traffic enforcement. You know your state has a law that prohibits formal or informal quotas or using a number of citations or tickets as a criterion for evaluating officer job performance. Your department issues an internal memo that [insert Arlington PD memo language]. What do you do, if anything?

We reap what we sow.

Just this year a Maryland Judge (who was formerly a prosecutor) dismissed a DUI case, ruling that the stop was linked to an illegal quota. The crux of the defense was subpoenaed police memos that some officers perceived as a quota. Defense attorneys are heralding the ruling as a new defense in DUI and other traffic violation cases.

And if judges don’t dismiss cases on this ground, expect defense attorneys to cross examine officers on any possible quota to attack the officer’s credibility on the issue of bias, i.e., an improper motive for the stop.

Another wrinkle to the bigger controversy.

The perceived quota in the dismissed Maryland DUI case reportedly didn’t arise out of job performance evaluations but rather from a federal grant. The Police Chief said the grant “mandated that an average of 2-4 citations must be written per hour on each of these details by each officer or future funding may be withheld.”

I leave you with a question. Is there an ethical difference between hidden illegal quotas in order to get federal grant money and fudging crime stats for the same or other reasons?


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About The Author:

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website: