The Traffic Ticket Quota Issue

A sense of déjà vu.

Back in 2010 I wrote a poston this issue.  I will reference two paragraphs from that post and remember, this was written back in 2010:

The recent attempt by the Winnipeg Police Service to impose traffic quotas was cloaked under the guise of overall officer performance, attempting to ensure that officers perform all aspects of their job.  The monitoring of officer performance in and of itself is a good strategy.  However, such a strategy will only succeed if the monitoring of traffic enforcement statistics is part of an overall performance monitoring strategy.  If traffic enforcement is the only statistic being measured while other aspects of their performance such as the numbers of arrests made are not, officers soon realize that it’s not about performance, it’s about revenue. 

As with many approaches timing is everything.  The Service’s recent foray into the traffic ticket quota minefield at a time when photo radar and traditional enforcement revenues are down and the Service is facing a budget shortfall might suggest that the need for additional revenue has trumped performance and road safety.    

It is now two years later and the Winnipeg Police Service is doing an encore performance.  Again they are facing a budget shortfall and are looking to the revenue side to address the issue and the revenue side means more tickets.

In the words of George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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Traffic Tickets: A New Bargaining Chip for Police Unions

Police departments have become addicted to traffic ticket revenue much in the same way that other levels of government are addicted to revenue from gambling and lotteries.

From a policing and road safety perspective, ticket revenue was never intended to become a major revenue stream.  Ticket revenue was a by-product of traffic enforcement.  In its purest form traffic enforcement is conducted as an evidence based activity targeting either particular offences or particular locations that, based on the evidence, can be shown to detract from road safety.

Police departments have the ability to gather the required intelligence to be able to set enforcement strategies based on objective criteria that link enforcement to road safety and not revenue.  However, no matter how desirable an increased level of road safety may be, it does not translate well into dollars to fill gaps in police budgets.  The result is that many police departments continue to utilize enforcement strategies that maximize the number of tickets issued and the fine revenue generated – and not road safety.

Police Unions are quickly picking up on this trend and traffic enforcement, or rather the lack thereof, is becoming a powerful bargaining chip for police unions.  Existing legislation on issues such as arrest and the issuing of traffic tickets is worded in such a way that officers “may arrest” or “may” issue a ticket.  It does not say they shall or must.  Officers have discretion and may use other approaches to deal with traffic violators.  Legally they are allowed to issue warnings as opposed to issuing tickets.

It seems that some officers in Dekalb County, Georgia are doing just that.  In June and July of 2009 the number of traffic citations issued by officers dropped from 23,797 to 19,029 and from 22,716 to 15,783, respectively, compared to 2010.  That is a 20% drop in June and a 30% drop in July.

The DeKalb County Police Department recently imposed an unpaid holiday policy that is not going over well with officers.  The union representing the officer denies that officers are on a ‘ticket furlough’ but do admit that there has been a decrease in morale. The Chief blames the reduction in tickets on other factors such as manpower, call volumes and officers’ use of discretion.  The reduction in tickets issued in June and July of 2010 represents 1.75 million dollars in lost revenue.  In 2010 DeKalb County projected 25.9 million dollars in ticket revenue.

Meanwhile in Spain, Guardia Civil (highway patrol officers) are protesting the introduction of a productivity bonus system that relates pay to performance.  In Spain fine revenues from tickets issued by Guardia Civil  in June of 2010 dropped 50% compared to June of 2009 despite increased patrols.  Guardia Civil does not have the right to strike but an unnamed union official said that highway patrols have every right to be ‘gentle’ with drivers.

The size of the bargaining chip or ‘hammer’ being handed to police unions is determined by the degree to which the organization is dependent on traffic ticket revenue.  A city or police department that plugs  large numbers (in the millions) into its budget from anticipated traffic fines can experience a hard fall if those numbers drop off, for whatever reason.

Jurisdictions that use photo radar technology for the bulk of their traffic fine generation may be somewhat immune to this phenomenon.   Machines (photo radar), once installed, cannot take furloughs, go on strike or use discretion.  They just churn out tickets and revenue 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Traffic Tag Quotas

By definition a quota refers to a portion or share that an individual, unit or division within an organization is required to contribute to the whole.  Quotas can be used to express both minimums and maximums. 

In terms of officers handing out traffic tickets, quotas refer to minimums, i.e. the minimum number of tickets that each officer is required to issue. 

One might ask why is it necessary for police agencies to impose quotas regarding traffic tickets.  Can we not expect officers to do their job which includes handing out traffic tickets? The issue is complex.  Some police officers see traffic enforcement as beneath them – they want to concentrate their time and effort on enforcing criminal law, not traffic offences and by-laws.    Some officers actually take the position that they ‘don’t do traffic’.  Police unions have traditionally opposed quotas on the grounds that it limits officer discretion.

The increase in fines has also contributed to the reluctance of some officers to issue tickets. They find it difficult to hand the average ‘working Joe’ a ticket, knowing the fine will be in the hundreds of dollars. 

Another factor that influences officers is their recognition that the issuing of traffic notices is as much about revenue as it is about road safety.   Many police officers resent being revenue generators. 

The recent attempt by the Winnipeg Police Service to impose traffic quotas was cloaked under the guise of overall officer performance, attempting to ensure that officers perform all aspects of their job.  The monitoring of officer performance in and of itself is a good strategy.  However, such a strategy will only succeed if the monitoring of traffic enforcement statistics is part of an overall performance monitoring strategy.  If traffic enforcement is the only statistic being measured while other aspects of their performance such as the numbers of arrests made are not, officers soon realize that it’s not about performance, it’s about revenue. 

As with many approaches timing is everything.  The Service’s recent foray into the traffic ticket quota minefield at a time when photo radar and traditional enforcement revenues are down and the Service is facing a budget shortfall might suggest that the need for additional revenue has trumped performance and road safety.    

Some police agencies that are serious about tracking performance have put in place statistical programs as part of their overall CAD and RMS system that automatically track and provide reports on officer’s performance at the individual, unit and divisional level.  Such programs incorporate traffic enforcement as part of what is being measured and make such measurement more palatable.  The reports generated by such systems serve as an important tool to evaluate and improve individual and collective performance.   

The recent push by the Winnipeg Police Service for more traffic tags is simply a knee jerk attempt to balance the budget.  The police executive needs to monitor spending more closely throughout the year so that this scenario can be avoided for 2010. 

The quota tactic may result in short term revenue increase but will it modify officer performance in the long term?  Will the Service demand ongoing compliance with ticket quotas in 2010 or will the introduction of a new budget make officer ‘performance’ in this area less crucial?