Looks like a duck, Quacks like a Duck, Must be… a QUOTA

I have long criticized the quotas that law enforcement often use in writing citations.  Revenue-generation policing is something that officers and departments deny, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it happens in many places.   The State of Illinois enacted a law  that became effective on January 1, 2015 that made quotas illegal.

Here in Normal, Illinois, the local police department had been sued by officers who were allegedly punished for not meeting quotas.  That lawsuit went away with the new law, but the question of quotas most certainly hasn’t.  In early 2015, it became known that the Normal Police instituted a new rubric for measuring police officer performance.  Each officer was expected to initiate three “enforcement contacts” with citizens each shift, resulting in a citation, an ordinance violation, or a written warning.  Hmmm… that sure sounds like a quota.  But no, the Chief argued on WGLT public radio, its not a quota.  Officers don’t have to issue citations.  And its reasonable that an officer would make three enforcement contacts during a shift.  Ok. Sure.

Fast forward to late summer 2016. The State mandated Illinois Traffic Stop study data for 2015 has now been released, providing data on more than two million traffic stops state wide.  I gained access to this data last weekend. And while I am still mining the data, it does not hard to see that something strange has occurred.  After making an average of 11,861 stops a year in the prior five years (2010-2014), there was something markedly different about the 2015 report.

Traffic Stops, Normal Police Department
2010   – 12,216
2011   – 10,237
2012   – 12,117
2013   – 11,776
2014   – 12,961
2015   –  19,637

Normal PD increased its total number of traffic stops by 6,676 in a year.  2014 was already its record high of almost 12,961 stops, and a year later, the department was making just shy of 20,000 stops.  Twenty thousand.  More stops are being made in Normal than in many much larger suburbs in the Chicago-land area. When examined on a daily basis, Normal police officers made 21 more stops per day in 2015 than they did a year before.  21.More. Stops. A. Day.

The enforcement contact policy requires officers to either issue citations or written (but not verbal) warnings.  In 2014, officers issued 8,472 citations (65.3%), 367 written warnings (2.83%), and 4,122 verbal warnings (31.8%).  In 2015, while making 6,676 more traffic stops, officers only wrote 6,784 citations (34.5%).  This was a decrease of 1,688 citations. This means that 65.5% of traffic stops in Normal in 2015 received warnings – and with the exception of 899 instances where verbal warnings were given (4.58%), 11,954 motorists received written warnings (60.87%).

So, wait…  Officers stopped 21 more motorists a day.  But they issued 4 less citations a day, 8 less verbal warnings a day, and 33 more written warnings, EACH DAY.  Every Day.  So, is this good?  Or is this bad?  Well, on the one hand, if Normal had held true to past practice, and issued citations in 65 percent of cases, 12,862 individuals would have received a ticket in 2015.  But they didn’t.  Instead, the vast majority of drivers received written warnings.  That sounds good, right?  Written warning.  No ticket.  No money spent. No points.  Why the warnings?  I think officers revolted, the rebelled against the new policy.  They made the stops, but they didn’t write tickets.

But is it good?  Maybe we ought to be looking at this from the perspective of 19,637 drivers in Normal being stopped by police for a traffic offense, 12,961 of which either did not merit a citation, or the officer chose to cut the person “a break.”  I’m sure the police will spin it this way. (They will also argue that all these stops prevent drunk driving, but that’s an entirely different discussion).  But if the majority of stops were for minor trivial traffic infractions, if the majority of stops were nuisance pre textual stops, having their liberty infringed, even if for just 10 to 20 minutes, then it might be a form of harassment — all in the name of ensuring officers meet an arbitrary metric of three enforcement contacts a day.

Let’s look.  What were the stops for?  The State divides stops into four categories:  moving violations, equipment violations, license plate/registration, and commercial vehicles.   In 2014, almost three-fifths of stops were for moving violations (7771, 59.4%).  Of those stops, 4,836 were for speeding. In 2015, there were 10,092 moving violation stops (51.39%), 6,904 (35%) were for equipment violations, and 2,637 (13%) were for license plate/registation violations.   In the 2015 moving violations only half (5,979) were for speeding.  There were 817 stops for lane violations. 1,256 were for turn signal/traffic sign violations.  1,931 stops were classified as “other.”    Non-moving violation stops in Normal accounted for 6,904 incidents.  Another 2,637 individuals were stopped for license plate/registration violations.

While it sounds good that officers handed out almost 2,000 less tickets, the reality is that an awful lot of the stops Normal made were for minor offenses, often pretexts to investigate a driver.  The stops for those nuisance reasons more than doubled with a huge increase in stops for things like license plate violations, turn signal violations, and the such. This may properly be viewed as aggressive officers making stops they don’t need to be making, just so they can question and potentially harass  citizens.   OR to do this so the officer doesn’t get in trouble for not meeting his… dare I say it…. QUOTA.

I am still just beginning to “mine” the data, doing cross-year analyses, but there are two important points.   One, is that Normal PD does not appear to unfairly target African Americans.   There are differences in stops between Caucasians and African Americans, but they are relatively small (although it is harder to assess whether African Americans are being stopped disproportionately to their population in the community).   BUT what is very clear is that Normal Police targets young people.  Close to half of the 19,637 individuals stopped in 2015 were under the age of 26.   Normal PD targets young drivers, teenagers, college students, and people in their early twenties — and with a vengeance.   When a histogram is run of the age distribution of stops, it diminishes dramatically after age 26.  Here though there is a racial difference, Whites across all are groups, drop steadily in the number of stops in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.   African-Americans do not age out as smoothly in terms of police contact, and a 45 year old Black man is still more likely to be stopped than a 45 year old White man.   Again, this data still needs to be further examined.

The end result is that the police department’s stated metric of measuring police effectiveness and performance by how many stops, tickets, and arrests they make, is one in which citizens are being stopped at rates far disproportionate to the population.  Almost 20,000 people were stopped in Normal. A case can be made that many of these citizens — young citizens —  were in effect, harassed, for no other reason than an over-zealous chief wanting to make sure his officers were engaging in a minimum amount of enforcement contacts.  It is also a consequence of the stop and question everyone mentality that pervades policing today.

Next steps in my analysis will be exploring investigatory stops and comparing them with legitimate traffic safety stops, and further refining the data on age, race, and gender. But one thing is crystal clear.  On the very same day that the state of Illinois made police quotas for citations illegal, the Normal Police Department began a new performance policy that has resulted in what almost certainly looks like a quota.   With almost 20,000 stops in a year, it smells like a quota, it looks like a quota, it must be a quota. And as a result, we all lose. Maybe protecting and serving should mean more than stopping drivers for increasingly minor offenses.  Because are we really safer if the police stop a 19 year old for failing to use his turn signal properly?  Not stopping someone for failing to signal, but not signaling  100 feet before the stop.  We can, and should demand better.


Stay tuned… more to come.

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