It's not unusual for patrol officers in the city of Falls Church to hand a motorist two, three or even four tickets during one traffic stop. Drivers sometimes ask Officer Scott Rhodes whether he's trying to fill some sort of quota.

"I answer the citizens honestly," said Rhodes, who is president of the Falls Church Coalition of Police union. "Did I write them because of a quota? Yes, sir, I did."

Falls Church police require patrol officers to write an average of three tickets, or make three arrests, every 12-hour shift, and to accumulate a minimum total of 400 tickets and arrests per year. In terms of quotas, writing a ticket for a broken taillight carries the same weight as an arrest for armed robbery.

Failure to meet the quotas results in an automatic 90-day probationary period with no pay raise and a possible demotion or dismissal if ticket or arrest numbers aren't immediately raised to acceptable levels. Vacation time, extended leave or military duty doesn't reduce the quota, union officials said -- patrol officers still are required to meet the annual ticket or arrest numbers, meaning they must write more tickets when they return to the streets to compensate for their time away.

Falls Church officials defended the two-year-old practice, saying the approximately 10,000 city residents wanted aggressive traffic enforcement across their 2.2 square miles. The city's main streets and neighborhoods often are used as "cut-throughs" because they are near two Metro stops, Interstate 66 and the Seven Corners Shopping Center. Police Chief Robert T. Murray said the city does not have much serious crime, and "all of the officers know that traffic is a big issue with the community."

Murray said the quotas are relaxed for officers who take vacation or leave, but union officials said that was false. The union cited numerous examples -- including officers who had been injured, on pregnancy leave, even on temporary Marine duty -- who were ordered to reach their annual numbers or face disciplinary action and little or no pay raise.

Murray said police established the quotas "to show what the officer's doing, to make sure their time is accounted for." He said that officers should have little trouble writing three tickets in a 12-hour shift, particularly on such heavily traveled streets as Broad Street (Route 7) and Lee Highway, and that he has received no complaints from citizens.

Mayor Dan Gardner agreed and said, "I'm quite pleased with the performance of our police across the board."

Most area police departments said they do not use ticket or arrest quotas to evaluate an officer's productivity. The use of ticket quotas was largely discarded by police commanders in the 1980s because it was seen as an inaccurate way to measure an officer's performance and as an incentive that distracted officers from doing more important work.

Falls Church police union officials said the quota policy discourages patrol officers from such measures as following a weaving, and possibly drunk, driver when they can spot a car with a burned-out headlight. A DWI arrest takes a minimum of four hours to process, but carries no more value at raise -- and promotion -- time than a 10-minute headlight ticket, Rhodes said.

Officer Markus Bristol, vice president of the police union, said, "It's just sickening to me. I deal with the general public; the vast majority are hard-working." Bristol said he wanted to spend more time establishing contacts with the growing Latino community, "but I've got to get out there and write those tickets."

Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington company that consults with police departments nationwide, said, "There's increased emphasis [among police] on collecting data to measure performance," driven by improvements in technology and creative uses of that technology.

"But there's a fine line," Wexler added, "between legitimate reasons for gathering information to measure performance and establishing arbitrary quotas, which pretty much have not been used for some time."

In Baltimore, sergeants in one district recently ordered their officers to make two arrests per week and established other weekly performance quotas. When the quotas were made public last month, police commanders and the mayor immediately ordered them eliminated.

"You cannot measure workload by any single number," Fairfax City Police Chief Richard Rappoport said, "because the job is just too varied for these kind of simplistic measures."

Rappoport faces many of the same traffic issues as Murray in Falls Church -- his city is six square miles and has little serious crime. Fairfax City urges its patrol officers to write an average of 11/2 tickets per day, or 28 a month, but Rappoport said that was "a pretty soft target."

Rappoport said if the quota is set "too high, you force people to play a game," and then officers would be staked out with radar guns only on the main thoroughfares. Instead, Fairfax City officers are assigned to park or patrol slowly in neighborhoods, which might not result in many tickets, but generates many compliments from residents.

Rappoport and Vienna Police Chief Robert A. Carlisle said they analyze other performance aspects, such as how many accidents officers worked, how many field contacts they developed, how many investigations they handled and how much self-initiated activity they were responsible for.

"I wouldn't expect two to three tickets a day," said Carlisle, whose officers patrol 4.4 square miles. "And if they did extremely well in other areas, they would get a good evaluation."

Murray noted that Falls Church officers are evaluated on various tasks, not just traffic enforcement. "It's one of five areas they're being evaluated on," Murray said, "to address a concern that is major to the citizens."

In each of five evaluation areas, Falls Church employees receive ratings from "exceeds expectations" down to "below expectations." The lowest rating in any area automatically places an employee in a Performance Improvement Plan, delaying any possible raise; all raises are tied to overall ratings.

"They've set an unattainable standard," Rhodes said. "A single 'BE,' which has predominantly been in the numbers category, has been bringing all the officers down."

Union leaders have raised the issue with police commanders, saying that not only are the goals difficult to reach -- a middle rating of "Meets expectations" requires at least 500 tickets or arrests in a year, and a top rating requires 600 -- but they affect the quality of police work. They said their alternate proposals were rejected.

Murray said that "many officers had no trouble meeting or exceeding" the quotas.

Dionne C. Williams, a Falls Church spokeswoman, said that because traffic is the community's chief concern, focusing on traffic enforcement is part of community policing.

Staff writers David Snyder and Del Quentin Wilbur contributed to this report.