by Marni Soupcoff
You know how police departments are always denying that they have quotas for how many traffic tickets their officers must write? Well, it may just be a matter of terminology.
A leaked memo recently sent by Sgt. Wanda DeCoste to officers in Toronto’s 31 Division reminds them that traffic enforcement officers are expected to write 25 tickets a day, and “accident car officers” are expected to write at least 10 tickets a day, provided they are not dealing with any collisions.
And yet, Toronto police still insist there are no quotas in place. Deputy Chief Peter Sloly offered this helpful distinction when talking with the Toronto Star: “No, there’s no quota. But there is an expectation.” (Clears it all up, doesn’t it?)
Here’s the thing. Whether you call it a quota or an expectation, there’s something problematic about police being dressed down and potentially sanctioned for not giving out a pre-set amount of tickets. In the memo, Sgt. DeCoste not only calls producing only one or two tickets a shift “unacceptable,” she intimates that by doing so, an officer could be ruining his chances of being recommended for career-promoting courses.
It’s talk like this that gets people like me feeling cynical about whether the traffic police are out there for our safety or to generate a guaranteed amount of revenue.
The idea that the police expect (one might even say hope for) a minimum of offenses per day suggests that they have no intention of actually trying to decrease the number of speeding cars, and certainly no expectation of their ticketing having that effect over time. (If they actually thought they were cutting down on speeding with their speed traps, they’d be revising the officers’ ticket quotas — sorry, ticket expectations — down each day.) Rather, what they really seem to want is to be able to rely on their officers nabbing a certain number of unlucky suckers every shift.
This is troubling, if not exactly Earth-shattering news, because once law enforcement starts operating with a mentality that it’s the “collars” that matter, there is a danger that such a way of thinking will hold sway in even more serious areas with more rights at stake.
When you get pulled over for a traffic violation, you waste ten minutes of your time, twiddling your thumbs for a while as you wait for your plates to be run, then eventually you pay a small fine.
It’s not great, and it’s not fair if the whole enterprise is designed for your fleecing rather than your protection from harm, but it’s not as intrusive as actually being arrested or physically searched by a police officer — actions which literally deprive a person of their liberty. Yet there have been credible allegations that in New York City, police have operated with quotas for these law enforcement activities too.
As you’d expect, the NYPD denied the charges, which surfaced in 2010, but in much the same way as Toronto police have denied the traffic ticket quota allegation: by using a different word.
An NYPD spokesman explained that the apparent quotas for arrests and stop-and-frisks there were actually just little aspirational numbers he liked to call “goals.”
To state the obvious: Neither Toronto nor New York has any shortage of serious crimes that need police resources, time and man-power for their investigation. What urbanite doesn’t have a story, experienced first-hand or heard through the grapevine, of police responding to a break-in with a sympathetic shake of the head and a don’t-expect-to-ever-see-any-of-your-stuff-again sigh?
So why couldn’t law enforcement shuffle things up and use their capabilities to follow up on crimes real people have actually reported, rather than on achieving bureaucratic statistical satisfaction in crimes politicians and policy makers have anticipated? Can you imagine how much more respect police would get from ordinary citizens as a result?
In the traffic arena, why not drop the ticket “expectations” and judge officers on how well they’re doing their job.
If they’re supposed to be out there standing behind a radar gun all day, then check to see if they’re standing out there standing behind a radar gun all day. (And maybe check to see if paying an officer to stand out there behind a radar gun all day is the best use of manpower.) Don’t make the excuse that the only way you can figure out what officers are up to is by counting how many tickets they’ve issued.
What better way to crush officers’ good instincts to use their discretion and training than to equate their performance with how much cash they’ve grabbed per shift?
Lastly, if officers are operating under pressure to issue a certain number of tickets, rather than using their own judgment about which drivers seem most dangerous, there would logically seem to be a greater likelihood of the officers issuing unnecessary on inappropriate tickets. (That’s what humans do when under pressure.) It’s those tickets that waste all of our money by creating more appeals, which require time in court, paperwork and officer overtime. It’s one more expensive collective headache.
It’s great that police departments are so good with words that they have ready access to soft synonyms for quotas. It doesn’t, however, excuse the practice.