Law enforcement officials say they are under pressure to issue traffic citations as a way to generate revenue. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Police officers in Metro Detroit are often ordered to write a certain number of moving violations -- but chiefs issuing those edicts are careful not to use the "Q" word.
"Nobody likes to call them quotas, but that's exactly what they are," Trenton Police Sgt. Richard Lyons said. "When you're being told how many tickets you need to write, to me that's a quota."
State lawmakers banned ticket quotas in 1979, but in 1988 an exception was written into the Motor Vehicle Code that allows the number of tickets written to be used in evaluations of traffic enforcement officers, as long as ticket writing is weighed equally among other job criteria.
"It's a bit of a loophole," said James Tagnanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan.
"Chiefs never like to use the 'Q' word, but they're certainly telling officers they have to write 'X' amount of tickets."
Law enforcement officials say they are under more pressure than ever to issue traffic citations as a way to generate revenue in the midst of a moribund economy and dwindling state revenue sharing.
A Detroit News analysis of court and police records shows the number of tickets has increased dramatically in many Metro Detroit communities over the past six years, a period during which state revenue sharing dropped by $3 billion.
To help offset that loss, many communities are mandating the number of tickets traffic officers must write, Tagnanelli said.
"Police departments are being pressured to bring in more money by writing tickets," he said. "So we're seeing more and more of these performance standards, which are basically quotas."
It's part of the job
Livonia Police Chief Robert Stevenson argued that police officials need to track what his seven traffic officers are doing.
"A part of being a police officer is writing tickets," Stevenson said. "And we have to assess how our officers are doing their job. We have performance standards that look at many different aspects of their performance, including the number of tickets they write. But that's just one thing we look at."
John Whalen of Warren said he suspects police have ticket quotas.
"I got a ticket for rolling through a stop sign, and when I went to court the line was so long it looked like Kmart," he said. "There must have been 200 people paying their tickets. ... They absolutely have quotas to fill."
Among the police agencies that have taken advantage of the exemption allowing ticket mandates:
Police departments that take advantage of federal highway seat belt grants under the "Click It or Ticket" campaign also work under a quota system. Federal highway grants compel communities to dispatch their traffic cops on seat belt sweeps, with a mandatory number of stops during each shift. The number of stops depends on the grant.
The Police Officers Association of Michigan filed grievances in Rochester in 2006 and Oak Park in 1998, claiming officers were being unfairly disciplined because traffic enforcement was the primary standard for evaluations. The union lost both cases in arbitration.
"As long as it's only one of the criteria used to evaluate officers, it's legal," said Tagnanelli.
Shelby Twp. in an 'uproar'
Police officials are not allowed to threaten officers with punishment directly because they don't write a certain number of tickets -- but that's what happened recently in Shelby Township, Treasurer Paul Viar said. "There was an uproar (in April) when the police chief ordered the officers to write at least one ticket per day or they would be punished," Viar said. "The officers objected."
Tagnanelli said he met with Shelby Township police officials. "They re-evaluated their policy," he said.
"It was written right into the policy that if officers failed to write one violation per every eight hours on the road, there would be a written reprimand. They're not allowed to do it that way."
Shelby Township Capt. Roland Woelkers said the Police Department has not crafted a new policy since law enforcement officials met with the union and scrapped the original plan.
"We're in the evaluation stage, to see what kind of policy we want to put in place," Woelkers said. "We certainly want to make sure the officers are doing their job, and traffic enforcement is a big part of that. But we're looking at the entire spectrum of what our officers do."
Ticketing tied to complex
Viar said he believes the attempt to have Shelby officers write more tickets likely was tied to a proposed $23 million police and court complex. When township officials announced the plan, they promised no taxpayer money would be used to build and maintain the facility. Instead, court fees would pay for it.
Viar feared the decision to pay for the facility entirely with fees would open the door for a ticket quota.
"Certainly, I can see the danger in having to pay for this facility," Viar said.
"It's been deemed that the court's not supposed to be a revenue stream, but we all know the court generates money. But what if they don't generate enough money? Are the police going to put a ticket quota in place so they can pay the bills? These are valid questions."
Woelkers said he's heard the questions himself. "That point has been raised: 'You're trying to get us to get more revenue to build the court.' But it's absolutely not true," said the police captain.
The same issue was raised in Dearborn Heights in 2006, when a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Dearborn Heights passed out fliers urging motorists to avoid driving in the city because of the "revenue generating scheme" in which the group said officers were ramping up their ticket writing to pay for the $22 million Justice Center, which was completed in 2003.
"Everyone knows they need money to pay for their Justice Center, and they're doing it by writing tickets," said Dianne Sleiman of Dearborn Heights, who said she had a perfect driving record before she got a speeding ticket in May on Ann Arbor Trail.
"It's not exactly a secret."