Commentary: Police quotas inflate community tension and distrust — making officers’ jobs more difficult

Quotas build a wall between law enforcement and citizens, furthering an antagonistic mindset of “us against them.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asks a question of Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, in the Senate Chamber in Salt Lake City, Thursday March 8, 2018.

Police quotas will soon be prohibited in Utah. On the final day of the 2018 legislative session, Senate Bill 154 passed the House of Representatives with unanimous support to end the use of ticketing and arrest quotas for police.

Sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, this new law — once signed by the governor — will positively affect public safety, strengthen community ties with police and end an ethical dilemma for front-line peace officers.

Quotas have largely existed as an informal, verbally enforced standard in several law enforcement agencies, which is why they have sometimes been difficult to prove. Although some law enforcement executives denied that any quotas exist, there has been clear evidence to prove this claim wrong.

Even the Utah Fraternal Order of Police pointed out that “quotas absolutely exist.” Most officers won’t speak about their experiences for fear of retribution, but many who have left the profession are willing to openly share compelling information about the use of quotas.

Some officers have been passed up for promotions or job transfers based on their ticket or arrest numbers alone, with no other factors considered. Others were given gift cards and prizes for whoever could give the most tickets out or make the most arrests. Still more were punished for failure to achieve certain numbers.

Stories such as these poured in from officers around the state privately reaching out to Stephenson in support of his bill. Although details differed, they all felt similarly about the bill: Quotas are an unacceptable element in law enforcement.

Two former Utah peace officers, Eric Moutsos and Jeffrey Hardenbrook, publicly testified during committee hearings for SB154 about quotas they were given. A recording of Moutsos’ former boss was played for legislators that revealed a 20-ticket-per-day quota, required for every officer in the motorcycle squad.

An imposition of quotas forces officers to choose between being punished or instead giving someone a ticket who would otherwise be let off. Hardenbrook told the committee that quotas build a wall between law enforcement and citizens, furthering an antagonistic mindset of “us against them” — police against the rest of us.

“They are facing a dilemma of conscience,” Stephenson added.

When an officer is ordered to make a minimum number of arrests or to issue a specific number of citations, their primary focus becomes achieving that goal in hopes of obtaining a reward or avoiding a penalty. These perverse incentives push public safety into secondary focus. The officer’s mindset inherently becomes, “How many do I need to catch,” rather than, “How can I keep them safe?”

This outlook is clearly wrong, because the job of an officer is to protect and serve — not to feel pressured to meet a subjective number in order to stay employed or move up in the ranks of their trade. Peace officers should not be revenue generators — something with which the Utah Legislature thankfully agreed in passing this new legislation.

There are many reasons to dislike quotas from an officer’s perspective, but a key one is the simple fact that quotas inflate community tension and distrust, making their job more difficult. When pulled over on the side of the road, you may have skeptically wondered: Am I truly being stopped because I caused any harm or danger, or was I targeted so the officer can meet a certain quota? This suspicion naturally breeds animosity.

Without quotas, this mindset may change, because officer discretion will increase. Instead of feeling compelled to write a ticket every single time a stop is made, an officer can exercise his or her judgment to make a better decision about whether to write a citation or instead give a warning. Officers are trained to administer the law and help service justice, but they also should be able to use mercy where necessary.

Once the governor signs SB154, Utah will join at least 18 other states that ban quotas. This is a win for our state, as officers should focus on keeping the peace, not generating revenue for their city’s budget. We applaud the Utah Legislature for so strongly supporting a ban on police quotas.

Molly Davis | Libertas Institute

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.