Quota Quandry

The New York Times Magazine’s cover story this past week A Snitch’s Dilemma considers the world through the eyes of Alex White, a small time drug dealer and paid informant who first worked for, and then turned on, the Atlanta Police.  In 2006, Kathryn Johnston heard a group of men prying open the metal security gate at her front door. The 92-year old grandmother got her pistol and fired a shot as the men burst in. The men storming her house – members of the Atlanta Police narcotics unit serving a no-knock warrant they had put together earlier in the day in order to meet their monthly quota – returned fire with a hail of bullets.

Mrs. Johnston bled to death on her living room floor while one officer handcuffed her, another retrieved a package of drugs from the back of his police car to plant on her, and a third called Mr. White.  They needed Mr. White, a trusted, long-time informant, to justify the bogus warrant by saying he had made a buy at the house.

Mr. White’s life as a paid informant for the police before Mrs. Johnston’s killing, and what happened after he turned in those same police, is described in telling detail by Ted Conover, a journalist who spent a year crossing and re-crossing the U.S. –Mexico border to write Coyotes, then worked for a year as a prison guard at Sing-Sing to write Newjack.

Conover is a great storyteller, and I hope his next immersion journalism gig is as a local police officer, a profession that has become increasingly driven by numbers.  Whether they’re called quotas, performance standards, productivity measure, targets, or weekly/monthly goals, policing by the numbers is a problem needing the kind of deep undercover coverage that is Conover’s specialty.

Three years after Mrs. Johnston’s killing, I talked with Atlanta’s Police Chief Richard Pennington about the APD’s quota system. During the trial of the police officers responsibly for killing Mrs. Johnston, the push to meet a quota had been a prominent feature of the officers’ legal defense.  Quotas had also played some part in a string of police missteps, including a recent raid on a gay bar that produced zero drugs and a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Chief Pennington is a large, powerfully built man who moves with the air of someone used to getting his way.  He had very aggressively gone after corruption in New Orleans’ police department in the 1990’s.  In Atlanta, he had managed to convince the cash-strapped city to build an enormous, new police headquarters.

Yet, when I asked why he still used quotas – he preferred to call them “productivity measures” – he spread his arms out, hands up, and shrugged in a pantomime of utter helplessness.

“How else do I know they’re working?”

The Chief had a point. The man who keeps my truck running likes to tell stories about his days as an Atlanta motorcycle cop.  During football season, especially when temperatures dropped below freezing, there was a downtown hotel that was always welcoming. The officers rode their motorcycles down to the parking garage’s bottom floor, took the elevator up to their free room, and spent their shift watching the game.

Requiring officers to show “productivity” through a certain number of tickets written or warrants served was Chief Pennington’s way of cutting down on the screwing around.

But quotas are to blame for more than the spectacular, occasional tragedies like Kathryn Johnston’s killing.  They are also at the root of the mundane, daily indignities created by NYPD’s stop and frisk policies.  Here is retired NYPD Captain John Eterno, in a recent op-ed for the New York Times:

“An officer assigned to an “impact zone” — a high-crime area — told me that ‘the Constitution has been thrown out the window when it comes to stops.’ He is given strict daily quotas and asked at the end of his tour about his numbers. An officer who fails to meet the required number for the day is berated (sometimes in front of peers), not allowed time off and given unpalatable work assignments. Nothing is asked about maintaining order, interacting with the community or other kinds of police work.

The result of this “performance culture”: needless summonses for minor violations (putting one’s feet on subway seats, playing chess in a park, failing to wear seat belts) and other quota-driven activity. This does not make for efficient policing.”

In New York City as in Atlanta, an emphasis on quotas for police assigned to communities of color has made racial profiling that much worse.

And just as Chief Pennington acknowledged the use of performance measures but not of quotas, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement officials have found themselves twisted up around deportation quotas. In early 2010, director of ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations James Chaparro sent around a memo titled “Removal Goals” that complained of low numbers, “well under the Agency’s goal of 400,000.”  Higher ups at ICE did a lot of fast dancing to insist that there was no quota in place.

Yet, it’s hard to read the targets inside the agency’s 2012 budget request as something other than a set of deportation quotas.  Or, if ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton prefers, a productivity measure.

Some questions –

  • Now that immigration enforcement has come to rely on the criminal justice system as its primary intake valve, what are the implications of relying on quota driven policing? How do quotas for frontline police officers affect the deportation quotas?
  • What’s the relationship between quotas and the use of informants?
  • What would change if quotas were eliminated?  What, if anything, would replace them?
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