Two Arlington police officers accused of falsely inflating traffic stop numbers claim they were pressured to make stops and write citations because of a department traffic ticket quota.
Arlington police officials denied that the department has a quota system, which would be illegal under state law.
The officers, who have been on paid leave since last month, said they were told by supervisors to make two to three traffic stops per shift with 50 percent of those stops resulting in traffic tickets, according to redacted statements from the officers. The statements were shown to the Star-Telegram by the officers’ attorney, Randy Moore.
“They’re smart enough to not have a policy that says, ‘You will be required to meet the average number of stops, citations and arrests.’ ” Moore said. “There is no written policy, because that would be illegal. They’re doing it informally.”
The officers declined to speak directly to the Star-Telegram on Moore’s advice.
The Arlington Municipal Patrolman’s Association, which represents a majority of the accused officers, posted on its website that it “does not condone the alleged actions of those officers.”
But the AMPA also questioned whether an informal traffic ticket quota system is in place, alleging that officers are evaluated based on their statistics, including traffic stops and citation totals.
AMPA alleged that officers have been approved or denied off-duty part-time work — which can pay about $46 an hour — based on their traffic activity.
“The environment is that we’re beat over the head with statistics,” said one AMPA member, who agreed to speak to the Star-Telegram on the condition of anonymity.
The controversy, one expert says, shows the gray area between using statistics — like traffic stops, citations and arrests — to measure performance and using them in the form of a quota.
“We do expect cops to be doing something, and tickets are easily quantifiable and, consequently, do factor into the equation to ensure cops are doing something,” said Phillip Lyons, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. “By suggesting there is some magic number, I think it gets to be problematic.”
The Arlington Police Department’s internal affairs division is investigating whether Moore’s two clients and 13 other officers reported making traffic stops that never happened. The officers were placed on leave May 31.
The 15 officers were identified during a routine audit, Cook said. A source close to the investigation said officers’ supervisors discovered that some stops did not have accompanying dash-cam video.
The investigation could take up to two months.
‘Quotas are alive and well’
One of the accused officers said he received a low evaluation score earlier this year with a comment from his supervisor that his traffic stops were among the lowest on his shift, his statement to Moore says.
State law against quotas addresses traffic citations, not traffic stops.
The Texas Penal Code says agencies “may not establish or maintain, formally or informally, a plan to evaluate, promote, compensate, or discipline” officers based on how many traffic citations they issue.
“Our department does not require a specific number of citations,” Lt. Chris Cook, a police spokesman, said in a written statement given to the Star-Telegram in response to questions about whether the department has a quota system.
Officers, Cook said, police geographic beats and are expected to identify and solve problems within those beats.
“Whether it’s reducing violent crimes, property crimes or vehicle accidents, a traffic stop is one of the most effective tools a police officer has in addressing crime and public safety,” Cook wrote.
But Moore said the department’s approach to traffic stops has turned into a daily pressure for officers. He showed the Star-Telegram a text message from one of the officers he represents:
“Ticket quotas are alive and well in Arlington PD. … Been told many times in briefing before shift they expect 2-3 traffic stops a night and 50% of your stops need to have a citation. Really bad.”
If expectations weren’t met, the officer told Moore, officers could be at risk of losing overtime and part-time off-duty work.
During one shift briefing this year, the officer said, a sergeant announced that a corporal was denied off-duty work because he didn’t have enough traffic stops.
On its website, the AMPA posted a redacted copy of an off-duty work request from an Arlington officer who is not being investigated.
The request was approved earlier this year with a condition:
“This authorization is subject to being rescinded if the officer’s work performance regarding traffic enforcement and self-initiated activity do not improve,” the approving supervisor wrote.
Cook said Arlington officers’ activity “is reviewed by several levels of the organization to determine an account of what officers do with their time and how they manage their beats.”
“Officer activity can encompass a lot of things, including attending community meetings, making contact with neighbors, conducting traffic stops and pedestrian stops for violations of the Transportation Code, arresting offenders, responding to calls for service and patrolling their beats,” Cook said.
Dallas attorney Chris Livingston, who is also representing multiple Arlington officers in the case, said he has not heard from his clients about a specific quota.
But the department, Livingston said, posts statistics for self-initiated activity, such as traffic stops, on a “routine basis.”
“I believe all the officers can see where they are in the stats for the month,” Livingston said.
Posting statistics “is not unheard of” in police departments, Lyons said.
AMPA filed a complaint about a traffic ticket quota with the Police Department in 2009, but nothing came of it, said Chris CeBallos, an AMPA board member.
CeBallos and other AMPA officials declined to comment on the current investigation into officers.
On its website, AMPA posted “some points to ponder” about the Police Department’s environment when it comes to traffic stops, including evaluation documents, internal emails and a copy of the complaint.
In the emails from 2010, a west patrol district sergeant explained to officers why their weekly citations totals are tracked.
“I am not going to tell you to write tickets, or how many for that matter,” the sergeant wrote. “I will say that when the shift performs at, let’s say, average of 8 per person per week, you should be right there.”
Later in the email, the sergeant wrote: “So … let me sum up: please issue citations, whenever you can, and with those numbers … please just be average. You can be above average … that’s fine too. Those of you that wonder how I evaluate … hopefully this will explain it for you.”
Attorney Jeffrey Beltz, whose Garland law firm works thousands of traffic ticket cases a year, said he hears a common defense for encouraging officers to write more citations.
“What they always tell us on our side is that a quota is a set number,” Beltz said. “If you’re telling your officers we need to issue 1,000 tickets a month, that’s a quota. If you’re telling them you need to issue more tickets, that’s open-ended and not a quota. That’s how they’ve been getting around it.”
In more emails posted by AMPA titled “Citation Report,” the sergeant included the shift average and the officer’s citation total. If the officer’s citations were above average, the sergeant wrote in parentheses “thank you!”
For one officer whose total was below average, the sergeant wrote “I’m aware you’re training … FYI.”
On one annual evaluation posted by AMPA, the officer scored four out of five for productivity with the comment that the officer’s arrest and citation totals are “consistent with the shift average.”
By the numbers
The state statute against traffic ticket quotas doesn’t prohibit cities from estimating what they expect to collect from traffic citations.
Arlington’s current budget projects revenue of about $9 million from traffic tickets.
Fort Worth, about twice the size of Arlington and with about 1,000 more officers, budgeted for about $6 million in traffic fines. But Fort Worth police also made fewer than half the traffic stops Arlington made last year — 41,000 compared to Arlington’s 91,000 — according to the cities’ racial-profiling reports.
Fort Worth is budgeted to collect about $5 million in traffic fines for fiscal 2016.
Sgt. Marc Povero, a Fort Worth police spokesman, said the department saw an increase in calls for service last year, which likely caused a lower traffic stop rate than in Arlington. Road construction has also caused Fort Worth drivers to slow down, leading to fewer violations, he said.
Fort Worth isn’t far removed from a traffic ticket scandal of its own.
Eight city officers were charged in 2010 with falsifying traffic tickets to justify overtime pay through the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program, or STEP, a federal grant program. The charges against the officers were dropped in 2014, when allegations of a department traffic ticket quota arose.
Arlington participates in STEP, too, receiving about $77,000 in grant money through the first three months of this year to help pay officers working overtime traffic enforcement.
But unlike the Fort Worth cases, Moore said his Arlington clients’ complaints don’t involve the STEP program.
Lyons, the Sam Houston State professor, said it’s a challenge for departments to avoid getting preoccupied with statistics.
“On the other hand,” Lyons said, “if you have some officers that have nothing to show for their time, it does sort of beg the question: Why, exactly, are we paying them?”