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Outlawing Police Quotas

Police quotas don’t make communities safer — they prevent officers from focusing on larger public safety issues.

July 13, 2022
View the entire How Perverse Financial Incentives Warp the Criminal Justice System series

Imagine you are a police officer in one of the over 13,000 police depart­ments across the United States. Instead of being tasked with using your skills and train­ing to focus on prevent­ing or respond­ing to viol­ent crime, you’re given a number. “Twenty and one,” or twenty tick­ets and one arrest per month. One speed­ing ticket during every hour of your 12-hour shift. Eight­een tick­ets a shift. Two to four search warrants a week. At least 100 tick­ets a month.

As some local police lead­er­ship says, “get your numbers up,” and you’ll be rewar­ded with over­time, pizza, barbe­que, car wash coupons, gift cards, and trophies.

The Bren­nan Center’s new report details these types of incent­ives, specific­ally enforce­ment quotas where police lead­er­ship impli­citly or expli­citly direct line officers to hit a certain numer­ical goal per time period — stops, tick­ets, or arrests. Some­times quotas are framed as an employee productiv­ity meas­ure­ment tool, and other times, law enforce­ment is pushed by local govern­ment lead­ers to use police enforce­ment to raise funds for a local­ity, often with little consid­er­a­tion for public safety.

In either event, track­ing officer productiv­ity through these numbers over­sim­pli­fies the complex real­ity of public safety and can incentiv­ize officers to prior­it­ize enforce­ment activ­it­ies that can be completed quickly and easily, often faring well for their own employee eval­u­ations, even where there is no real public safety need for them. This comes at the expense of devot­ing time to invest­ig­at­ing more complex or viol­ent crimes that signi­fic­antly impact public safety.

Police enforce­ment quotas hurt every­one. They risk putting immense pres­sure on officers to meet required numbers, regard­less of whether they observe crime or miscon­duct and no matter how impact­ful (or mean­ing­less) those enforce­ment activ­it­ies actu­ally are for community safety. One study found that officers with arrest and cita­tion quotas have a lower clear­ance rate for viol­ent crimes. In the more extreme case, officers can resort to malfeas­ance to meet their quotas: fabric­at­ing a reason for a stop or arrest, assign­ing tick­ets to ficti­tious drivers, or even record­ing tick­ets for dead people. (Consider, for example, a recent lawsuit against the Chicago Police Depart­ment alleging a Chicago deputy chief “deman­ded certain numbers relat­ing to police activ­ity, regard­less of the crim­inal or traffic activ­ity justi­fy­ing police inter­ven­tion.”)

Police quotas signi­fic­antly damage civil­ians’ trust in law enforce­ment, which is vital for police to perform their jobs effect­ively, espe­cially given how import­ant crime tips, eyewit­ness accounts, and court testi­mony are for invest­ig­a­tions and prosec­u­tions. Quotas have also been connec­ted to racially biased enforce­ment. In one such case, New York Police Depart­ment officers alleged a commander “pres­sured them to enforce low-level viol­a­tions against [B]lack and Hispanic people, while discour­aging them from doing the same to white or Asian people.”

Many police officers have expressed distaste for these quotas, often concerned that being forced to prior­it­ize certain enforce­ment actions over others removes their profes­sional discre­tion to serve their communit­ies’ unique needs. In fact, the National Police Research Plat­form found that “8 out of 10 police officers repor­ted that their agency is ‘more inter­ested in meas­ur­ing the amount of activ­ity by officers (e.g., number of tick­ets or arrests) than the qual­ity of their work.’”

Some may argue that quotas encour­age police to increase enforce­ment activ­it­ies, which could hypo­thet­ic­ally improve public safety. One recent study sugges­ted high-visib­il­ity enforce­ment (i.e., uniformed officers and marked police vehicles) was connec­ted to improved seat­belt use, decreased hand­held phone use, and speed decreases in work zones. A 2011 study also concluded that an increase in tick­ets led to fewer motor vehicle acci­dents and related injur­ies. However, a 2015 article found the oppos­ite conclu­sion: as the number of traffic tick­ets declined sharply nation­wide start­ing in the early 2000s, so did traffic injur­ies and fatal­it­ies.

While at least 26 states (includ­ing Iowa, Missis­sippi, Montana, Nevada, and Virginia) and Wash­ing­ton, DC, have laws prohib­it­ing quotas, there has been limited success in using legal aven­ues to rein in their wide­spread use. It’s diffi­cult to get a suffi­ciently inclus­ive defin­i­tion of what a quota really is, and it’s hard for police officers to report the use of quotas due to the “blue wall of silence” and the legit­im­ate fear of retali­ation. Officers who do report miscon­duct may have police unions that funnel issues into closed-door arbit­ra­tion instead of public lawsuits, hiding wrong­do­ing from the public and thereby hinder­ing poten­tial reform.

Legis­lat­ors must enact compre­hens­ive legis­la­tion to outlaw enforce­ment quotas completely. As law school professor Shaun Ossei-Owusu argues, anti-quota stat­utes need to encom­pass a wider defin­i­tion to include both formal and informal quotas, prohibit all enforce­ment activ­it­ies (warn­ings, stops, cita­tions, or arrests) as criteria for employ­ment actions, protect whis­tleblowers, and create consequences for police lead­er­ship that imple­ment or enforce quotas.

There are other ways to enforce traffic laws, keep people safe, and eval­u­ate police officers as employ­ees without forcing officers to meet arbit­rary number require­ments. Altern­at­ive metrics could include community members’ satis­fac­tion with their engage­ment with officers, the rate of police encoun­ters safely de-escal­ated, and the number of success­ful diver­sion efforts.

Anything less risks turn­ing police into revenue gener­at­ors at the expense of address­ing real public safety issues.