Fairfax County police ticket policy scrutinized

Drivers often suspect officers are trying to fill a ticket quota when they get pulled over, but a memo that went to a Fairfax County police squad laid out in black and white exactly how many citations it had to issue.

In case any officers missed the point, supervisors at the Sully District Station in Chantilly underlined the pertinent section: “Either 2 summonses or 1 summons and 1 warning must be issued and entered per day on average.”

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The Fairfax County police memo.
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The Fairfax County police memo.

Fairfax police officials quickly tossed out the performance standards after The Washington Post obtained a copy of the memo and began asking questions about it.

Officials said the standards violated the department’s standing policy against the controversial practice of ticket quotas, which are illegal in some states and many say put pressure on officers to hand out tickets for marginal offenses.

“It was an innocent mistake, not malicious,” said Lt. Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., deputy chief of police for patrol. “It was rescinded immediately. That’s not the way we do business.”

Roessler said it did not appear that the “minimum standards” outlined in the “Squad Expectations and Operational Instructions” affected the ticket production of the squad. He also said that he had not found any officers who had been disciplined as a result of missing that mark and that if he did, he would overturn the punishment.

Roessler also said he was conducting an audit to ensure similar standards were not in effect elsewhere in the department.

The memo, issued by 2nd Lt. Tim Burgess and Sgt. David Kuhar on Oct. 1, went to only about 12 officers on one squad, police said. The county police department has 48 squads and additional special units at its eight stations.

Nevertheless, it raised some eyebrows. Fairfax County Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R) said that traffic is the top issue for his constituents in the Sully District but that police supervisors missed the mark with the standards.

“If it’s a mandate, it goes too far,” Frey said. “If it’s an encouragement, it’s probably poorly worded. I would certainly be more comfortable encouraging aggressive enforcement rather than having hard and fast numbers.”

In the memo, the ticket guidelines were included among 20 standards for performance, including returning calls in the same work cycle they are received, refraining from sexual or racist jokes, and respecting senior officers.

Most police departments publicly eschew ticket quotas as a sole measure of an officer’s performance, saying they do not capture the disparate tasks that go into good policing. In addition, they are usually not popular among officers or the public, which bears the brunt of the policy.

Chris Cochrane, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police union, declined to comment on the memo, saying he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the case, but he added that “as far as the union knows, there is no ticket quota” in the Fairfax police department.

It’s not the first time that an area police department’s ticket-writing practices have been scrutinized. In April, Arlington County’s police chief acknowledged a series of memos dating back years that required officers to make a minimum number of arrests and traffic citations.

Chief M. Douglas Scott said the directives did not constitute a quota system but could have been interpreted that way.

In 2004, union officials with the Falls Church police revealed that officers were required to make three arrests and issue three traffic citations during a 12-hour shift. Officers said the policy encouraged them to pursue offenses that could be written up quickly, such as a broken headlight, instead of more time-consuming work, such as pulling over a drunk driver. The quotas were later rescinded.

Some states ban ticket quotas. In Maryland, law enforcement agencies cannot enact formal or informal quotas or use such numbers as the sole standard in evaluating officer’s performance for promotions or demotions. Virginia does not have such a law.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said police departments face a careful balancing act when it comes to setting goals for officers’ performance.

“While quotas are never the right thing to do, there has to be a level of expectation for officers,” Wexler said.

After reviewing the memo, Wexler said he thought the Fairfax police supervisors had struck the right balance with a comprehensive set of standards by which to measure officers that went beyond just ticket production.

 
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