NYPD Commander’s Text Messages Show How the Quota System Persists
Officers say the language used now is more subtle but still encourages numbers-driven policing.
George Joseph Dec 12, 2018
For almost a decade, the NYPD has battled lawsuits, whistleblowers, and press exposés alleging that the department enforces a “quota” system that requires officers to log a certain number of arrests and summonses—or face retaliation. Officers themselves have spoken out against quotas, arguing that the practice encouraged cops to ignore some offenses, while embellishing or making up others.
Since Commissioner James O’Neill took over in 2016, the department has consistently said quotas no longer exist, and promised to punish supervisors found to be enforcing the practice.
But officers across the city say the practice continues in other, more subtle forms. Internal text messages from one Manhattan lieutenant, obtained by The Appeal, offer a window into how NYPD precinct supervisors, and the officers under them, are still being pushed to chase numbers.
In a June 2018 text conversation obtained by The Appeal, the lieutenant notifies his sergeants about an upcoming TrafficStat review meeting at NYPD headquarters, where his boss may be questioned about the precinct’s traffic enforcement activities. With the review in mind, he orders the sergeants to make sure their patrol officers focus on certain traffic violations, such as speeding or using a cell phone while driving:
“Apparently we have traffic stat next week,” he says. “Make sure we have the cops handle hazard traffic conditions in their sector. Who ever is in tmrw for patrol I want a traffic initiative in our cpl,” a likely reference to a crash-prone location.
The lieutenant adds that he wishes he could give his sergeants individual data on their officers’ activity numbers. “Make sure all your cops are contributing,” he says. “Unfortunately I don’t have the break down for the officers as our traffic sgt has not provided any stats for us.” (A 2012 lawsuit alleged that individual officer activity numbers were being used to enforce the quota system.)
The NYPD has long maintained that while it uses “performance standards” to evaluate officers, it does not push them to hit specific numerical targets.
“There are no numerical enforcement quotas established by the NYPD,” Lieutenant John Grimpel wrote in a statement to The Appeal regarding the content of the texts. “Performance evaluations are conducted for all Department employees based on an assessment of their duties, responsibilities and specific conditions of their assignments.”
But six NYPD officers who reviewed the messages told The Appeal that such language is typical of the new, less explicit methods supervisors use to enforce an unofficial quota system today.
He’s ordering them nicely to go and find those summonses. It doesn’t matter how you get them, just get them.
Although it’s unclear how widespread these practices are, the six officers said they have experienced such pressure within their precincts. Three of these officers—Ritchie Baez, Pedro Serrano, and Sandy Gonzalez—are part of the “NYPD 12,” a group of officers of color that is suing the department over alleged retaliation for their refusal to go along with the quota system. After raising questions about the practices, the officers allege, they were given undesirable posts, lost overtime, or were passed over for promotions. The other three officers requested anonymity, citing fears of professional reprisal. All six saw echoes of the quota system in the texts about traffic enforcement.
“He’s ordering them nicely to go and find those summonses,” said one of the officers. “It doesn’t matter how you get them, just get them. We still have a quota. Nothing changes. You still have to pay your rent.”
How ‘broken windows’ fuels quotas
Scholars say the unofficial quota policy developed in response to the NYPD’s introduction of “broken windows” policing in the 1990s. Setting activity minimums helped push a sometimes recalcitrant force to crack down on the low-level violations prioritized by the new approach. This pressure pushed officers to go after both minor quality-of-life crimes and traffic violations, as the Village Voice exposed in 2010. Police leaders believed that increasing day-to-day opportunities for questionings, searches, and arrests would catch criminals and deter would-be criminals.
Since its implementation, crime has gone down, and NYPD leadership took credit for the drop. But scholars have increasingly cast doubt on the degree to which these tactics brought down crime. Activists consistently argued that the program disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx residents for minor offenses.
The resulting backlash has led to intensified scrutiny of quota practices. In past leaks to the press, supervisors have been caught giving officers explicit target numbers for specific offenses. In the texts obtained by The Appeal, the lieutenant does not reference a specific number, but makes clear that he is tracking their summons totals, relative to last year, to ensure that the unit is “productive.”
In another message, he notes that “traffic stat package shows day tour was the least productive in the 28 day,” referring to an NYPD data handout that compares current and last year’s precinct summons numbers in 28-day intervals. “This is not your guys fault as I didn’t have any stats to review and discuss with you guys.” The message concludes with the seemingly contradictory note: “The amount of summons is not our focus. Please constantly remind your cops what our goals are in terms of traffic.”
Although the commander says quantity doesn’t matter, the tracking sheet used by the department suggests otherwise. The Appeal viewed a November 2018 version of an NYPD 28-day summons tracking sheet, like the kind referred to by the lieutenant. The sheet shows rows of a select group of offenses, like “Bike/ E-Bike,” “Cell Phone,” and “Speeding,” and compares the “Current 28 Day” total to that of the year before. Summons categories with higher numbers compared to last year are colored in green, while categories with numbers coming up short are colored in red.
If I’m out there and I need to get red lights, and I see a dangerous lane change, I’m probably not going to go after that because I need my red lights.
The officers interviewed say the messages show supervisors are still under pressure to maximize the number of summonses their officers write even if they can’t set a specific numerical goal as in previous years.
“Productivity means, ‘Are you bringing in the numbers?’” said one officer, referring to the lieutenant’s language in the text messages. “They’re saying that the day tour hasn’t done their fair share of numbers. You’ll never get them to say a number, but it’s understood that you’re expected to get so much.”
Another officer agreed with that assessment, adding that he has heard of similar practices elsewhere. “A captain once told me, it just means we can’t put a definite number,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean we can’t tell them to write more.”
The quota expectations are set by last year’s numbers, the officers say, pointing to the lieutenant’s reference to the “28 day” productivity data. To track officers’ activity and generate numbers for the right offenses, the officers said, precinct captains use the kind of summons tracking sheets viewed by The Appeal. Precinct captains must match or increase their activity relative to the previous year, or face criticism, multiple officers explained.
“When they go to TrafficStat, they’re called out on that. ‘Why are you down? Why aren’t you where you were the year before?’” said the officer who spoke about productivity. “Most of the times they’re looking for, at the minimum, obtaining last year’s number, and more is certainly desired.”
The officers say this seemingly relentless focus on stats forces officers to hunt for summons opportunities, which may not be fair or even legal.
“If I’m out there and I need to get red lights, and I see a dangerous lane change,” the officer continued, “I’m probably not going to go after that because I need my red lights.”
To get their numbers, officers will sometimes “inflate” what they see, one officer said. “When they need to get that number and it’s getting late, instead of 67 they might write 71 [speeding violations],” he added. “It’s not the officers’ fault. It’s the supervisors who know what’s happening.”
A 2017 statistical analysis by Columbia Ph.D. student Jonathan Auerbach shows how the quota system influences behavior. Examining 2014-15 traffic summonses and moving violations citywide, Auerbach found that while collisions remained effectively unchanged, officers tended to write more tickets in the second half of the month. This ticket bump, he found, was “due entirely” to officers with below-median ticket productivity in the two weeks prior. On the other hand, officers ahead of their peers in ticketing for the first half of the month drastically reduced their ticketing rate in the second.
The hard part is that they are targeting innocent people for riding their bike on the sidewalk or having a dog without a leash, things that go on all over the city but have different impacts in different neighborhoods.
Nicole Smith Futrell
CUNY School of Law
Not everyone sees such benchmarks as a problem. Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and adjunct professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agreed the text messages “certainly sound like” quota instructions, but argued the NYPD needs such tools to ensure officers do their jobs.
“There are very few ways we can evaluate police officers’ activity. You can’t count how many times they shake someone’s hand on the street,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s written in the job description to make arrests and write summons, so it’s not forcing you. You signed up for that.”
‘Quota pressure from the top’
The text messages obtained by The Appeal focus on traffic enforcement, but NYPD officers say they believe unofficial quotas are also still pushing officers to ticket residents for other infractions, such as low-level quality-of-life violations.
Ritchie Baez, a Bronx officer and one of the NYPD 12, says although sergeants in his precinct don’t explicitly set numerical targets nowadays, he believes their priorities link back to the quota system.
“They say this is today’s initiative, whether it be Vision Zero’s cell phone summonses, or urinating or drinking in public,” said Baez. “When you’re being asked to do a specific initiative, that’s because of the quota pressure from the top.”
In January, “Crime + Punishment,” a film chronicling the efforts of the dozen NYPD officers who sued over the quota system, won a Sundance Film Festival award. The next month, the NYPD, while still denying the existence of the system, instituted a mandatory no-quota training session for officers.
City Council reforms passed last year have resulted in more broken windows summonses being issued as civil, rather than criminal, violations. But these low-level police stops, whether for traffic violations or civil infractions, can still have pernicious collateral consequences, especially for poor residents of color, argues Pedro Serrano, another Bronx officer who is part of the NYPD 12.
“Let’s say you get a summons and you can’t pay it,” he notes. “They can suspend your license. But you’re driving around still, so now they have to arrest you.”
In the first three quarters of 2018, the NYPD issued nearly 900 criminal summonses for drivers with suspended, revoked, or no licenses. During that same period, Black and Latinx residents made up the majority of those receiving civil and criminal summonses.
Nicole Smith Futrell, an associate professor at the CUNY School of Law, says quotas or “productivity goals” are often more pronounced in Black and Latinx neighborhoods because police want to stop and question more residents in areas with higher rates of crime. Yet these broad-brush tactics, she argues, criminalize average residents just because of where they live.
“The hard part is that they are targeting innocent people for riding their bike on the sidewalk or having a dog without a leash, things that go on all over the city but have different impacts in different neighborhoods,” she said. “You have to stop people based on suspicion of a crime. If you are finding these low-level ways just to stop people, that’s problematic.”
The NYPD’s decades-long commitment to broken windows policing means that unofficial practices like the quota system are likely to persist, says Bernard Harcourt, a Columbia University law and political science professor, who has criticized the NYPD’s approach to low-level crimes since the early 2000s. “There are real issues of path dependence here,” he said. “Institutions create real legacies and this is one that seems to be staying with us.”
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