Are Atlanta officers incentivized to write more tickets? CBS46 Investigates

Multiple Atlanta Police officers told CBS46 Investigates that they’re often placed in undesirable zones or assigned undesirable shifts, if they don’t score enough points.
Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 11:39 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - A CBS46 investigation has uncovered an incentive system that encourages police officers to write more tickets. Atlanta Police officers tell us that they are rewarded points based on their policing actions.

CBS46 Investigates first brought this system to light last month after a federal jury awarded $1.5 million to a Black transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against two Atlanta police officers for jailing her on a false drug trafficking charge. After our reporting, current and former Atlanta police officers across different city policing zones came forward to voice their concerns about the department’s performance evaluation system.

The Atlanta Police Department (APD) insists that officers are not penalized based on their point totals. But, the officers CBS46 investigative reporter Rachel Polansky spoke with said they’re often placed in undesirable zones or assigned undesirable shifts if they don’t score enough points.

Our investigation also found this isn’t the first time APD’s point system has been called into question. In 2020, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created a ‘Use of Force Advisory Council’ and tasked them with issuing recommendations to improve policing in the city. Among those recommendations was “eliminating performance evaluation systems and disciplinary actions that incentivize officers to make unnecessary arrests.”

We reached out to multiple police departments across the country and none of them reported having similar programs in place. See their responses at the bottom of this story.

Incentivized Policing

So, why are Atlanta’s police officers being incentivized to pull over more drivers?

“At the top left, you’ll see where it says ‘Target goals are based on an average of eight credits accumulated per day worked,’ meaning that I have to have eight points a day,” a former Atlanta Police officer, who worked in law enforcement for nearly two decades, told CBS46 investigative reporter Rachel Polansky, as they looked at the Zone 1 Performance Evaluation Chart.

Writing a ‘traffic ticket’ for example earns APD officers 1.5 points - while a ‘felony’ or...
Writing a ‘traffic ticket’ for example earns APD officers 1.5 points - while a ‘felony’ or ‘juvenile arrest’ is worth five points. Meanwhile, ‘calls for service,’ which include 911 calls are worth 0.25 points.(Rachel Polansky)

This former Atlanta police officer – who would only talk with CBS46 Investigates if we hid their identity – said officers are awarded credits or points based on their actions each shift.

For example, writing a ‘traffic ticket’ earns APD officers 1.5 points while a ‘felony’ or ‘juvenile arrest’ is worth five points. Meanwhile, ‘calls for service,’ which include 911 calls, are worth 0.25 points.

“I’m not going to lie. If I think the person has the finances to pay for it, I will stack those tickets,” the former APD officer said.

“Does this system encourage officers to do police work that earns them more points?” Polansky asked.

“Oh yeah, absolutely, because I might decide to sit somewhere in the cut and wait for somebody to glide through stop signs, especially a stop sign that I know people are definitely going to miss, I will sit there and wait there for my points,” the former officer told Polansky. “I’m not going to lie. If I think the person has the finances to pay for it, I will stack those tickets. If I think that the person does not, I will not stack those tickets.”

To some Atlanta residents, the policy amounts to a reward system targeting the public as trophies.

“I am really critical of volume traffic stops,” Mary Yates said.

“I don’t like it. I think it’s ridiculous,” Jerry Middleton said. “That’s a way to produce numbers, a way to produce quotas and it’s ridiculous. It should be done away with.”

“I feel like that is setting them up to look for things that are going to score them more points, instead of what they need to be doing in general, so I feel like it may misguide them a little bit from what they should be doing, based on a point system. I don’t like it,” Brandi Brasher said.

APD Responds

Atlanta Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum defends APD’s evaluation system – calling it a way to measure officer productivity. “The values that are assigned are to reflect the time of service that it takes for that officer to meet that task,” Deputy Chief Schierbaum said.

The deputy chief told Polansky that points are based on effort and work. For example, he said “traffic stops” are fairly quick so they’re worth fewer points than “juvenile arrests,” which take up more time.

“So when you see that, that is a fair reflection of how much time is an officer out of service for those functions,” Deputy Chief Schierbaum added.

But a current officer in Zone 4 – who did not want to be identified, fearing retaliation – questioned that statement, saying if that was true, why would “calls for service” only be worth 0.25 points while “traffic tickets” are worth 1.5 points? He said both policing functions often take the same amount of time. He believes the point system may entice officers to ignore their “calls for service,” which include 911 calls, so they can do more traffic stops, which earns them more points.

“The system is heavily weighted on traffic tickets,” he added.

Still, APD insists that officers are not penalized based on their point totals. But all the current and former officers Polansky spoke with, reiterated that officers are often placed in undesirable zones or assigned undesirable shifts if they don’t score enough points.

Just last month, Polansky got a hold of an email an APD Zone 4 Major sent his officers, praising the Evening Watch for “going from 85 stops in week one to 180 stops in week two” and shaming the Morning Watch who “finished last with a disappointing” 112 stops.

An Atlanta Police Major sent this email to officers at the end of March.
An Atlanta Police Major sent this email to officers at the end of March. (Rachel Polansky)

Our investigation also found officers who met their “Target Goals” received comments like “Highly Satisfactory” while those who did not receive remarks like “UNACCEPTABLE.” And their point totals are not hidden in personnel files. Officers tell us they’re posted in precincts, like scorecards.

“They do this to embarrass you and they do it as a scare tactic because if you get too many of those ‘unacceptable,’ then you will get your extra jobs pulled from you. If you have desired days off, they’ll start by taking those days from you,” the former officer added.

“Why would you post this for all officers to see if officers weren’t being penalized?” Polansky asked Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum.

“I cannot speak to the posting at police facilities. We have several police facilities. I wouldn’t say it’s accurate to say it’s posted at everyone,” Deputy Chief Schierbaum responded. “Our goal is to know when that patrol car leaves the precinct that day, is it serving your community? Is that officer being effective in your neighborhood?”

An APD spokesperson elaborated on that statement in an email to Polansky, adding, “The points system alone does not determine the effectiveness of an officer, but it is a part of helping determine an officer’s effectiveness. We want our officers to be effective and we encourage them to be. We owe it to the communities we serve to have effective officers patrolling our streets.”

Not the first time

CBS46 Investigates found this isn’t the first time APD’s point system has been called into question.

In July 2020, former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created a ‘Use of Force Advisory Council’ and tasked them with issuing recommendations to improve policing in the city. Among those recommendations was “eliminating performance evaluation systems and disciplinary actions that incentivize officers to make unnecessary arrests.”

In August 2020, former-mayor Bottoms announced seven administrative orders after receiving those recommendations. One of those administrative orders directed the Chief Operating Officer to include the following in the top to bottom review of Atlanta policing: “Recommendations on how to revise officer evaluation systems to incentivize eligible diversions and de-incentivize certain arrests.”

When Polansky asked Deputy Chief Schierbaum if that happened, he said, “The mayor’s office initiated the Police Executive Research Forum to do that. They at no time found this document was a detriment.”

Tiffany Roberts, of the Southern Center for Human Rights, served as co-chair of the Use of Force Advisory Council.

“It’s pretty clear that if you say officers have to have eight points a day to have a satisfactory marking and you punish them if they don’t, you’re telling them they have to arrest people, so they’re not incentivized to divert cases,” Tiffany Roberts said. “So you’re incentivized to arrest people and to arrest people for the harshest offense possible.”

An APD spokesperson went on to tell Polansky that APD has recently created another performance evaluation chart that does award points to officers who use policing alternatives, known as “P.A.D. Referrals.” But officers in Zone 1 and Zone 4 told us they hadn’t seen that updated chart in their precincts.

When Polansky shared those findings with APD, a spokesperson said, “We will ensure all of our zone commanders discontinue use of the old evaluation sheet and ensure the new one, with the PAD referral, is being used moving forward.”

Regardless, an updated performance evaluation chart is something critics call putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

“No officer should be punished for not meeting this eight-point average per day. No officer should be punished for that,” the former officer told Polansky.

Other agencies weigh in

Are performance evaluation systems the norm in policing? CBS46 Investigates reached out to police departments across the country. Here’s what they said.

Milwaukee Police: “We do not have an evaluation of officers’ activity.”

Miami-Dade Police: “The Miami-Dade Police Department does not utilize any point system for evaluations.”

Philadelphia Police: “Our police department does not do this.

New York Police: “The NYPD does not evaluate our members in this manner – specifically we do not award points strictly based on activity/enforcement.”

Boston Police: “Our police department does not do this.”

Cleveland Police: “The Cleveland Division of Police does not use any programs like the one described.”

Austin Police: “We currently don’t not have any programs in place similar to this model.”

Are performance evaluation systems the norm in policing? CBS46 Investigates reached out to...
Are performance evaluation systems the norm in policing? CBS46 Investigates reached out to police departments across the country.(Rachel Polansky)

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