Panic rises when those blue lights start flashing in the rearview. The question “What did I do wrong?” starts running through our minds. Was I speeding? Is my tail light out? Are my tags expired? And of course, sometimes we do know why. But whatever the reason, we sometimes feel we’ve been wrongly accused. Everyone else on the interstate is speeding, so why me and not them? Feeling singled out for a traffic stop can leave some wondering: do police officers have quotas?
Simply put, no. Police officers do not have quotas. Though there have been disputes amongst the public and law enforcement officials as to whether or not quotas exist, they are actually banned in many states. Some reports suggest agencies find their way through these bans by promoting informal ticketing expectations.
Due to increased attention, however, these practices are slowly dwindling. New laws not only ban quotas, but make them illegal. Any monetary or promotional rewards due to the number of issued traffic violations or arrests are seemingly prohibited.
Expectations vs. Reality
Further digging into quota practices does reveal that some states do set certain expectations around ticket numbers. A 2015 Department of Justice investigation in Ferguson, Missouri did reveal that officers were asked to write more tickets to make up for a loss in sales tax revenue.
Consequently, this practice was prohibited through new guidelines imposed in 2016, and as of February 2022, ticket quotas – formal and informal – are officially banned in at least 14 states, including:
- New Jersey
- New York
Because ticket quotas are not technically a formal practice, these laws largely serve as a preventative measure. They do, however, also put an end to any informal expectations that may give state or local law enforcement any extra benefits for high citation numbers.
According to the National Motorists Association, Instead of promoting peace and reliability, ticket quotas only increase the gap between law enforcement and public trust. No longer are officers viewed as helpers, but rather as power-hungry employees who mindlessly ticket people to check a box.
Funds From Lawlessness
Why might some agencies impose these expectations? Though it may be difficult to see past the frustration of receiving a ticket, reasoning for any informal quotas often comes down to three factors that have nothing to do with driver:
- Financing government services
- Evaluating officer performance
- Contributing to state funding (which sometimes includes police budgets)
According to a 2021 article from the New York Times, a review of various town budgets, municipal records and state highway reports reflect that some municipalities keep a larger police force to help generate more citations and thus more revenue. Such a heavy reliance on this monetary source sometimes pressures law enforcement to comply in order to stay in good standing.
It is important to remember that, morally-speaking, tickets, laws and fines are meant to help keep a peaceful society, not be a funding source. Without pressure to make money, citation expectations would be arbitrary.
Though there are many ways for ticket fines to be wrongfully exploited, they are also a normal part of the American legal system. When used morally, they can benefit society in a handful of ways:
- They fund state safety and education programs
- Help cover state computer programs, keeping information organized
- Contribute to road safety through funding of equipment such as traffic lights or cameras
- Fund clean air programs
- Ease medical expenses for victims of traffic accidents who do not have insurance
All of these contributions help keep citizens safe and cared for in some capacity. Local safety campaigns like Click-it-or-ticket and similar endeavors may seem overused, however, they raise awareness that helps save lives and contributes to a positive attitude towards public safety. Ticket revenue is often split based on category. For example, some programs may be fully or partially funded by speeding tickets only.
Usage varies by state and can look different depending on area size and local tax expenses. Fines and taxation are not entirely fueled by greed. Often they do contribute to the betterment of society.
Consequences for Consequences
Keep in mind that law enforcement’s main goals are to reduce crime, respond to emergencies and enforce laws for the betterment of their community. When not fulfilling other duties, supervisors expect officers to be proactive during any “free time” by making traffic stops, serving arrest warrants or checking on businesses in their jurisdiction.
Even in the instance of a traffic stop, issuing a ticket is left to the officer’s discretion based on their knowledge of federal and state laws. Depending on the severity of the violation or attitude of the citizen, some officers prefer to give a warning rather than a fine. However, when someone breaks the law, officers are perfectly within their rights to issue a ticket.
Informal ticket quotas leave many officers feeling pressured. Though some may display a certain level of superiority, most undoubtedly take pleasure in issuing a ticket – especially when they feel the infraction would suffice with a warning. Their decision on whether or not to ticket a citizen can be compromised by the burden to fulfill their department’s alleged “station average.”
This pressure became so great for one Texas police veteran that she brought the matter to the city counsel. With the support of about 30 of her colleagues, officer Kayla Walker of Richardson, Texas accused her department of hiding informal ticket quotas under the guise of monthly productivity reports. This incident likely reflects the frustration of many officers, as these expectations erode trust between law enforcement and the public, making it more difficult for officers to do their job.
So before getting too upset at the police officer pulling you over, remember that citizens are not the only ones being cheated. Many officers are following orders beyond their pay grade at the risk of a negative evaluation and may feel as frustrated as you.
Traffic stops are one of the biggest connections between law enforcement and the public. Police1 conducted a survey from April to May of 2021 and determined some of the largest reasons behind traffic stops:
- 43% of stops were due to speeding
- 24% equipment violation
- 13% distracted driving
- 9% pretext stop
- 7% hazardous driving
- 3% impaired driving
- 0.5% failure to wear a seatbelt
The survey did not track the percentage of tickets issued in these situations. Quotas or not, one look at these numbers is enough to bring attention to the need of road safety.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported a rise in traffic fatalities over the last three years with death percentages increasing 10.5% from 2020-2021 alone. This is the highest number since 2005 and the largest percentage increase in history. While ticketing does not reform safe driving, it is clear that it is imperative the public take action to reduce these numbers.
Know Your Rights
Though officers certainly have the authority to ticket the public; the public has the right to appeal that decision. Receiving a ticket is not a guaranteed fine. If you wish to contest a ticket, you may do so by mail (in some states) or through court. Using the example of a speeding ticket, here are some steps to take if you do feel you were wrongly charged and want to go to court:
- Determine the method the officer used to track your speed
- Do not admit fault or pay the fine. Paying only looks like an admission of guilt
- Be polite. Keeping a low profile may make you less notable, and thus less memorable to the officer
- Keep a record of incident details (day, time, circumstances, etc)
While no one likes to admit guilt – especially if they feel they are innocent – there are easier ways to ease the blow of a traffic violation. Consequences for tickets are high, costing initial violation fees, possibly increasing your insurance, and marking your driving record for years. A popular option is to inquire about traffic school. Depending on the jurisdiction, completing a traffic school course can sometimes cause the judge to either reduce your fine or waive it completely.
All of these options depend on the age of the defendant and the severity of the traffic violation. Many states have different requirements and consequences for drivers 18 or under. Whether innocent or guilty, it is important to do research and know your rights.
In conclusion, police officers do not have formal ticket quotas, and the practices of any informal expectations are slowly being eliminated as states crack down and challenge their legality. The relationship between law enforcement and the public is a delicate balance of authority and autonomy.
Police officers are citizens too, and while they may wield more power than the average civilian, they are not immune to the pressures of government expectations. Citizens have the right to call out distasteful law enforcement practices just as much as law enforcement has the right to act on their discretion. With both working together, society can move towards a limitless quota of peace and justice truly served.
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Sarah is a passionate writer, educator and musician. Driven by an enthusiasm for learning, she loves writing articles of all subjects as each one is a new adventure. After teaching elementary music with the public school system for two years, Sarah began a job in marketing and has recently decided to hone her writing skills to build a freelancing career. When not writing, she loves to hike, visit animals at her local shelter and use her skills as a trained vocalist to perform in various settings. She cannot wait to see where this new path takes her!