Falls Church city officials want their police officers to write lots of traffic tickets. At least 5,000 tickets every year in the 2.2-square-mile city. And now the city is proposing a new pay scale for officers -- and those who don't write enough tickets will get demoted.

Recently, members of the Falls Church police union went public with their complaint that every patrol officer is required to write an average of three traffic tickets or make three arrests every 12-hour shift. Failure to make the quotas -- accumulating a minimum of 400 per year -- results in an automatic 90-day probation period with no pay raise during that period. The officers face possible demotion or dismissal if numbers aren't promptly brought up to, er, speed.

The high ticket number discourages officers from handling more time-consuming arrests, such as drunken driving, when an improper registration ticket counts as much as a felony drug arrest, the union said. Officers who take time off, whether for vacation, injury or military leave, must still reach that same flat number without consideration for their missed time, the union said.

City officials acknowledged the ticket quota, but noted that it was just one of many different areas in which officers are evaluated. The union responded that a "below expectations" rating in even one area, such as ticket writing, brings on the probationary period.

Falls Church officials said the city does give consideration for officers who take vacation or leave. The union steadfastly maintained it does not, citing specific examples of officers who missed months of work and were still held to a flat number, including one union leader's evaluation in July. The debate rages on. Officers sometimes wrote three or four tickets per traffic stop, city court dockets show, searching for any violation to get their numbers up to acceptable levels.

Now, Falls Church is proposing a measure that would truly lock the ticket quotas in place, and that has the police union even more outraged. The city has devised three new classifications for officers -- police officer, police officer first class and master police officer -- with different pay levels for each. It's called the "Career Path Program," designed to make the city's pay more competitive with other police departments.

But if a rating of "meets expectations" -- the equivalent of a "C" letter grade -- is received in any category, "the employee will be moved back one step in the Program," the proposed order states, and "the employee will not be eligible for advancement for one year."

Scott Rhodes, president of the Falls Church Coalition of Police, said: "For doing my job, for 'meeting expectations' of the standards they set," then "I go backwards. What kind of system is that? And if you move backwards, you lose 5 percent of your pay."

Falls Church City Manager Dan McKeever said the proposal was merely a draft, creating steps within the police officer rank similar to other jurisdictions. "The purpose is to make sure we reward different skill levels," McKeever said.

But McKeever emphasized that the new program was "still under consideration," and that no timetable had been set for its adoption.

McKeever told the City Council in August that police officers devise the evaluation standards, which require that 500 tickets be written to "meet expectations." Rhodes said the union's attempt to suggest more flexible standards has been ignored repeatedly.

"The officers' morale remains at a very low point," Rhodes said. "Should these policies continue, officers are going to be actively seeking other employment."