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Report: Maryland police are using a quota-like system to reward arrests

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nobody likes being pulled over by the police. It can be intimidating under the best of circumstances and under the worst, as we've seen all too often, it can lead to deadly outcomes, most recently in the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. So imagine how infuriating it would be to learn that traffic stops in your community might be being made not just for reasons of public safety, but to raise money or, even worse, as a kind of competition. That's the allegation in a new report from The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to local news in Maryland. Leaked internal documents, which were published in The Banner, showed Maryland State Police supervisors discussing a points-based system to evaluate the performance of troopers in one part of the state, suggesting that troopers who didn't measure up might be subject to, quote-unquote, "corrective action," but that troopers who did well might get a new car. That despite the fact that ticket and arrest quotas have been banned in the state for more than 15 years.

Baltimore Banner reporter Ben Conarck broke the story and is with us now to tell us more. Ben, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

BEN CONARCK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Your story is based on leaked documents that show email conversations between state police supervisors communicating about a range of topics, including what they called, quote-unquote, "low-performing troopers," those with the lowest amount of traffic citations and describing how to reward troopers...

CONARCK: Right.

MARTIN: ...Outperforming their colleagues in issuing tickets. Now, I just want to say at this point that these documents have been verified as authentic. The state police have verified that these were communications that they actually had. And state lawmakers have now had a chance to look at these. What do you think they say?

CONARCK: Well, you know, what we published so far is one memo and one email. The memo lays out, in pretty explicit detail, exactly how many traffic stops, how many citations, how many DUI arrests every trooper is supposed to make per month. The expectations fall under different categories. You can either meet the expectations, exceed the expectations or you can come in at needs improvement or unsatisfactory. And we're still learning more about what that means. The other document is an email - pretty interesting. You know, it basically lays out a points-based system. We've since learned more about what that points-based system is. And it uses that system to basically suggest that the best-performing troopers will get a new vehicle.

MARTIN: So we asked the Maryland State Police if this amounted to a quota for tickets and arrests, and they said the following - I'll just read it. In accordance with state protocols and with Maryland State Police policy, supervisors who choose to provide troopers with performance expectations may use average figures, ranges of numbers or approximations to assess reasonable levels of performance across a number of factors.

So based on your reporting - and also I will say that since, state lawmakers have now had a chance to review this information.

CONARCK: Right.

MARTIN: Do - I don't know if you feel comfortable hazarding whether they are breaking the law or not.

CONARCK: Well, I'm not sure if I'm quite qualified to get into that. But what I will say is that, you know, in 2006, when the General Assembly passed this law, that - I describe it as heavily restricting law enforcement quotas - there's a current delegate currently trying to tighten that ban. And the reason is because the law that was passed in 2006 said that law enforcement quotas can't be used as, like, the sole basis to judge someone's performance - a law enforcement officer's performance.

MARTIN: Well, so I was going to ask you. The report - your reporting is specifically about practices taking place along Maryland's Eastern Shore in, you know, state police parlance, the barracks, you know, there, OK?

CONARCK: Right.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense or does your reporting indicate whether this incentive program was used elsewhere in the state?

CONARCK: Yeah. So, you know, the tipster that sent these documents to the state delegate indicated that this system was being used in, quote, "a few barracks on the shore." Since then, we've obtained more documents that indicate this practice is more widespread across the state of Maryland. We've identified at least seven barracks that are using the expectation system in a way that looks a lot like a law enforcement quota.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting. I think this issue kind of surfaced in August of 2014 after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. And as we all know, you know, weeks of unrest surfaced after that. That wasn't a traffic stop per se. It was a police encounter. But one of the things that emerged was the sense that the public had that they were being used like an ATM machine.

CONARCK: Sure.

MARTIN: You know, that they were being harassed, in essence, by police so that the police could raise money.

CONARCK: Correct.

MARTIN: So did - the lawmakers you talked to - one in particular, Robin Grammer, who is, I want to mention a Republican, seemed quite upset about this. What arguments did he make about why this is so inappropriate?

CONARCK: He feels like officers should be able to use discretion on these things and has suspicions that, you know, the - this type of enforcement strategy is aimed at driving up revenue. I've heard other experts suggest that as well. It also could be political, right? You know, if you - constituents say, hey, people are driving like crazy on these roads these days, which I think is a pretty common complaint since the pandemic, you know, you can say, well, look, I'm increasing traffic stops. My troopers are doing more. It gives them something tangible to say.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting. The other thing that the - in your reporting, you said that the delegates - that whoever sent these documents to the delegate said that he was also concerned about the troopers' mental health, the effect on the troopers of having to conform to this. Can you just say more about that? I thought that was an interesting point.

CONARCK: So did I. And, you know, I've since had an opportunity to speak with troopers directly about this, and they agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. The idea is that, you know, this isn't fun for troopers either, right? You know, if you pull someone over, let's say they're right at the legal limit for alcohol and you feel like, OK, maybe they're not actually that intoxicated, but you have this heavy incentive to try to make this arrest. Whether the arrest sticks or not is another question. So maybe they'll fight it. You end up losing it in court. You know, I've heard that under these types of expectations, you know, when you're mandating daily traffic stops, the quality of those stops goes down. That's one concern.

You know, mandating stops on a certain shift can be a concern. You can have troopers who are being told to pull over more people in the dead of night. We know that traffic stops can be very dangerous for both people who are pulled over and sometimes for law enforcement officers themselves. So I think there are different layers of concerns. But generally speaking, I think law enforcement officers like to have some kind of discretion so they can decide whether something's worth their time or not. When you start attaching rewards and mandating a certain number of traffic stops, they feel like the quality of their work goes down.

MARTIN: That was Ben Conarck, a reporter with The Baltimore Banner. That's an online newspaper based in Baltimore, Md. He joined us to talk about his exclusive reporting on allegations that a Maryland State Police barracks has set up a ticket and arrest quota system. The state police deny this. You can find his story online. Ben Conarck, thanks so much for joining us.

CONARCK: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I also want to mention that we also reached out to the office of Maryland Governor Wes Moore for a comment. As of right now, we haven't heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.