Hey, why can't the cops put the brakes on all those nuts out there doing 60 on local streets and riding up on people's tails and weaving madly from lane to lane?

Hey, isn't it outrageous that the Falls Church police department requires its officers to write an average of three tickets per 12-hour shift? That's not justice, that's a quota.

Sorry, folks, but you are permitted to agree with only one of those rants. You may want to agree with both, but as the lunch ladies used to tell us at my high school cafeteria when there were two entrees on offer, "You can't have macaroni and fish." You must choose.

I'd like to believe that we live in a world in which people do their jobs solely out of passion for the craft. I'd like to think that your average police officer is determined to stop road rage, maniacal driving and selfish idiots.

But we all know that most cops, like you and me, probably engage in some of the same behaviors that we claim to be appalled by. Even if they're not scofflaws themselves, officers often have better things to do than go after traffic violators. There might be real crime to fight (actual item from last week's Falls Church police blotter: "Unknown person scratched the hood of a 2002 Cadillac Escalade with a racial slur") or there might be the entertaining nonsense to respond to (item: "Unknown person entered a 1996 Ford Contour and removed a tape measure and $10 roll of quarters."). Or there might be lunch to be eaten.

In any event, like it or not, we're all judged by the numbers.

A teacher I know professed to be appalled to find that her performance was being judged in part on the number of interactions she had with parents. Law firms keep running stats on the number of hours each lawyer works. Insurance companies count the seconds your doctors spend with you, penalizing docs for the chitchat that could reveal unspoken health problems.

In every newsroom I've worked in, reporters have been told they are judged by the quality of their stories, yet in every place, it has emerged that managers also keep tabs on the number of column inches each worker's stories fill.

The guys who pick up my trash have to visit a specific number of houses during each shift. The city judges them by how often they complete that task. (I judge them based on whether they leave behind trash that doesn't fit the city's definition of acceptable garbage. The guys on my route stopped by the other day to make me an offer: They'd haul away my extra stuff if I'd take care of them come Christmas. Now that's a brand of municipal extortion I like.)

Some local police chiefs gleefully rapped the Falls Church department for setting quotas. But I have in my paw a stack of stories going back 20 years in which we summoned the usual outrage when we found that police departments set ticket quotas or, as they like to dress them up, "goals."

As far back as 1984, Falls Church was setting general "goals," such as 551 drunken driving tickets and 2,592 speeding tickets ("Well, sir, you're speeder Number 2,593, so you're free to go!").

Sam Mabry sits on Falls Church's City Council and it's not the quotas that bother him ("We all in our lives have measurements of our performance," he says), but rather the fact that this story came out as it did, with the police union blasting the city for treating officers like little kids whose every action must be monitored.

"Obviously, there's anger and frustration, and that's a management issue that the department has not solved," Mabry says. "Citizens want those speeders controlled. Officers shouldn't be upset by having to write three tickets a day. In this time of terrorism, if your cops are upset, you've got a problem."

Good managers know that it's okay to count, but when counting becomes the issue, you've lost. The trick is to keep counting, but motivate people to do the job so that they meet the quota without knowing it ever existed.

Updating last month's tale of the Montgomery County couple who were chosen by a cable TV show for a free makeover of their garage, only to have their homeowners' association nix the renovation midstream: Jose and Elizabeth de la Barra won their appeal, and the TV people will be back next month to finish the job.

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