A Monterey Police officer filed a lawsuit against the City of Monterey in California on November 28, 2018. The reason? His superiors had allegedly instituted a quota system, ordering officers to issue a set number of traffic citations each month.
This is not a unique story.
Traffic quotas are illegal under the California Vehicle Code. Quotas frame communities as a source of revenue, transforming police work into a practice of collections rather than protections. They require police officers to replace regular patrol assignments with targeted traps, wherein officers sit and wait at locations they know motorists are likely to commit moving violations. Such practices can be an easy source of revenue for municipalities. Yet the costs can be high for particular communities, as large fines fall disproportionately on African-American and Latinx motorists, the demographics most likely to be stopped for minor traffic offenses.
The ban against traffic quotas has been difficult to enforce and difficult to verify. A flurry of lawsuits by police officers against police departments has illuminated the creative ways in which supervisors have skirted around them. One technique is called shift averaging, whereby a supervisor will calculate the average number of citations issued on various shifts and then punish those officers who fail to meet that number. In such cases, quota systems are not so much an explicit policy as they are an implied practice.
According to Officer Bryce Morgan, the Monterey Police Department institutionalized a quota system at the beginning of 2015. The court records collected and analyzed by Trellis help to substantiate these claims. From 2014 to 2018, the percentage of traffic citation filings to total court filings in Monterey County ballooned, increasing from 5 percent in 2014 to 58 percent in 2018.
These trends raise important questions about contemporary police practices, particularly about the primacy of traffic patrols within those practices. They also raise questions about the metrics police departments deploy in order to assess employee performance. Should police departments prioritize the issuance of traffic citations? Are traffic quotas the best way to track the productivity of police officers? How might the quality of traffic citations be prioritized over the quantity? What shapes might other forms of policing take?