The Virginia Police Benevolent Association says it is working with state lawmakers to draft legislation banning ticket-writing quotas for law enforcement agencies across the state.
Virginia State Police, which the PBA says uses the practice that requires troopers to write a certain amount of tickets as a measure of effectiveness, initially denied using quotas.
When confronted with an email obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in which a first sergeant scolded troopers for writing too few tickets and told troopers they should write at least five a day, a spokeswoman for the department acknowledged that the department’s various offices around the state set a target number of tickets to write, calling them “average benchmarks” rather than quotas.
“The reason we don’t have quotas is not because quotas are inherently a bad thing, but because they would not work for VSP,” said spokeswoman Corinne Geller. “Each VSP Area Office has different roles and responsibilities in their community. In addition, what a trooper does each day varies greatly. It would be nearly impossible to set a ticket quota even if we wanted to.”
Ticket quotas are illegal is several states, including California, New York, Florida and Texas, over concerns that police could unnecessarily stop drivers to meet mandated goals.
“The quota system is definitely a good ol’ boy, outdated, ineffective form of policing,” said Sean McGowan, executive director of the Virginia PBA. “It forces negative interactions with the public. Officers know when it’s appropriate to give a ticket and when to give a warning, but put a quota over his head, that discretion goes out the door — he’s more likely to write a ticket than give a warning.”
State troopers ticket or arrest motorists nearly 25% more often than every other law enforcement agency in the state, according to newly released data of all traffic and investigatory stops made in Virginia between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. State police are required to aggregate data from all police departments and sheriff’s offices, and create a statewide database as part of the Virginia Community Policing Act passed in 2020.
Troopers gave a warning or took no action in less than a quarter of stops, while other agencies let motorists go in more than a third of stops, the data showed.
The PBA hopes that by making quotas illegal, it would not only decrease the number of arbitrary tickets but increase community relations.
Because the target number of tickets differs from office to office — state police are divided among 49 geographic offices — and since the expectation is usually an “unwritten rule,” McGowan said it’s hard to prove that quotas exist.
But earlier this year, 1st Sgt. Eugene R. Desaulniers, from the Area 37 Office, which encompasses James City County, York County and the city of Williamsburg, wrote an email to troopers saying they should write a minimum of five tickets a day.
“That’s one every two hours,” Desaulniers wrote to troopers on March 29.
The email came the week after Lt. Col. Matthew D. Hanley, head of the department’s Bureau of Field Operations, which patrols more than 74,000 miles of state roads and interstate highways throughout Virginia, announced the return to “normal enforcement activity” after reducing it during periods of 2020 and 2021 when COVID-19 cases were spiking across the state.
“It appears ... that many of you are not aware that we have returned to normal enforcement activity. 4, 5 or 10 tickets for a week of work is unacceptable,” Desaulniers’ email reads. “There is no reason you should not be writing 5 tickets minimum on a typical day (that’s one every two hours). If you are on free patrol, you should be writing more if you want to remain on free patrol. I realize that some weeks court, crashes, weather, etc. factor in but they do not justify the pitiful enforcement numbers I am seeing. Let me be clear that the evals you got for the last performance cycle took into account the reduced enforcement periods and that those same numbers will not result in similar evaluations for this cycle.”
Geller denied the email established “a ‘ticket quota’ requirement/minimum for the troopers. It is simply the first sergeant stating his enforcement expectations now that COVID restrictions are lifting and with the onset of spring break and summer travel,” Geller wrote in response to a request from The Times-Dispatch for Desaulniers’ email, which she provided.
Each area office sets its own benchmark based on “performance averages to evaluate how troopers are performing in relation to other troopers in that same area,” Geller said. “This process has been in place at VSP for decades.”
Between March 18, 2020, and Sept. 1, 2020, Hanley ordered that there should be “no routine enforcement of minor traffic violations. This includes moving violations where there is no threat to the public,” according to a series of memos sent to troopers that The Times-Dispatch obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. That guidance was lifted and normal operations resumed, until December, when limited enforcement was again implemented through March 2021, the memos show.
In a final directive, sent March 23, 2021, Hanley resumed normal operations again but provided safety guidelines to limit exposure to COVID-19.
In a letter to Hanley in March 2021, the PBA board sought clarification on the guidelines, saying it “continues to receive reports from members that supervisors are requiring employees to disregard safety measures outlined in that memo. Select area supervisors are instructing employees to step up enforcement in terms of ticket writing. In one specific instance a supervisor directly stated to troopers, ‘it’s time to get back to business.’... Potentially exposing the trooper or the general public to the virus over a simple ‘ticket driven” traffic stop hardly seems justified.”
Ticket writing didn’t stop during the pandemic, but it did drop off significantly. The number of tickets written statewide last year was almost half the total written in 2019, according to data provided by Virginia State Police. In 2019, troopers across the 49 offices averaged about 750 citations each month; that average fell 47.6% to 393 tickets a month in 2020. This year, from January to May, the monthly average has climbed slightly to 423 tickets
“During the pandemic, troopers were not relieved of their highway safety responsibilities. They were simply asked to focus on the most dangerous driving behaviors and increase their visible presence as a deterrence to violators.” Geller said. “During the pandemic and especially within the first half of 2021, Virginia has witnessed (and VSP had made no secret about this as we have posted numerous reckless driving citations and other traffic safety posts on social media) alarming increases in traffic crashes, injuries and deaths due to extreme speed, lack of seat belt usage, and impaired driving.”
While the total number of crashes statewide dropped in 2020, the number of fatalities actually increased 2.4% compared to 2019, according to crash data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Also, 2020 saw increases in the number of crashes involving alcohol, speed and no seat belts, the data shows.
Hanley cited these upticks when he resumed normal enforcement levels. But troopers were told they wouldn’t be held to the same ticket-writing standards during the periods of limited enforcement.
“The lack of traffic enforcement will not be used against sworn employees during performance or leadership evaluations for the time period this policy is in place,” Hanley wrote in his first memo on March 18, 2020, about limited enforcement.
McGowan said if a trooper doesn’t meet the quota set by his superior, they could be placed on a performance plan. If their performance still doesn’t improve, the trooper could face disciplinary action like a change in position, as Desaulniers threatens in his email, up to termination, according to the PBA.
Geller wouldn’t say if any troopers were placed on performance plans or disciplined during the periods of limited enforcement because of COVID, but the PBA chapter said in a December letter to Hanley that supervisors were threatening some of their membership, which represents about 750 troopers, with performance plans and other penalties.
“Supervisors do consider the number of summonses issued,” Geller said, but trooper performance is also measured across other categories “related to criminal investigations, crash investigations, community relations, safety presentations, special assignments, effective use of time, problem solving, etc.”
The problem is, McGowan said, meeting the minimum number of tickets takes time away from these other duties.
“In policing, there is an over-reliance on the things that are easy to count. Tickets issued, arrests made, response time, are all easy to measure. In reality, these are very poor representations of police effectiveness,” said William Pelfrey, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University with expertise in policing, in an email. “By relying on the things that are easy to measure, and neglecting the things that are hard to measure (like perceptions of safety, or trust in the police), modern law enforcement sometimes fails to capture the important missions of police work.”
Pelfrey said nearly all law enforcement agencies across the country have banned quotas.
But Dana G. Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation, said “one of the only ways to objectively evaluate whether officers are giving proper attention to highway safety is to see if they are writing tickets.”
Schrad said often ticket minimums are written into the conditions of highway safety grants issued by state or federal agencies.
Chesterfield County police came under scrutiny in 2014 after an officer said he resigned because he was denied a raise for failing to make enough traffic stops and arrests, according to news reports. At the time, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said she’d support legislation to forbid quotas after reading the Chesterfield officer’s performance review requiring two traffic stops and one arrest daily. When the General Assembly next convened, she proposed a bill asking the State Crime Commission to study ticket-quota mandates, which failed to leave a subcommittee.
“It’s nothing new,” McGowan said. “It just needs to be addressed now.”
The public, and lawmakers, are asking for “less policing,” not more tickets, he said, referencing the calls for reforms in policing since social justice protests broke out across the state and nation last year. McGowan hopes the changing political tide will help pass their legislation outlawing quotas.
The draft language of the bill the PBA hopes to get introduced during this General Assembly session says: “A political subdivision or an agency of this state may not establish or maintain, formally or informally, a plan to evaluate, promote, compensate or discipline any law enforcement officer according to the officer’s issuance of a predetermined or specific number of any type or combination of types of traffic citations or traffic arrests.”
The penalty will “have teeth,” McGowan said. As drafted, it says: “If a law enforcement agency implements any type of quota system in violation of this section that agency, and individuals involved, will be investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for Public Corruption.”
Geller said the department does not publicly support or oppose legislation.
“Our responsibility is to fairly enforce the laws that are passed, not to make new laws,” Geller said. “However, it is unclear how policies that would limit the number of traffic stops conducted or summonses issued by members of VSP would make Virginia highways safer.”