Call it the Revenge of the Bucketheads.
Last week, the Los Angeles city council voted unanimously to settle a lawsuit brought by a group of motorcycle officers who claimed they had been given negative evaluations and denied access to overtime assignments for having failed to issue a required number of traffic citations. The eleven officers will share a $5.9 million settlement.
Back in May 2011 I wrote in this space of a similar lawsuit, one of several at the time in which LAPD officers prevailed in cases against department management. In the earlier case, a jury awarded a pair of motorcycle officers $2 million, accepting the officers’ claims that they too were punished for failing to write a sufficient number of traffic tickets. The California Vehicle Code specifically prohibits quotas for traffic enforcement.
It’s hard to know with whom to sympathize here, that is except for the taxpayers of Los Angeles, who are on the hook for millions of dollars which surely could be put to better use than enriching a handful of cops. In looking at things first from a management perspective, if you select an officer for a motorcycle assignment, a desirable position for which there is much competition, do you not have the right to expect that officer to go out and earn his pay for the ten hours of his assigned shift? In Los Angeles, as in most places where police use motorcycles, traffic enforcement is the motorcycle cop’s primary duty. (And good luck trying to get them to do anything else. I once found myself alone trying to sort out a multi-car, multi-injury pileup on an L.A. freeway only to see a motor cop snake through the backed-up traffic and breeze right past me and out of sight without so much as a nod.)
The alleged “quota” for these aggrieved officers was 18 tickets in a ten-hour shift, which hardly seems burdensome. Considering that the typical traffic stop lasts about ten minutes, anyone familiar with the peculiar ways of Los Angeles drivers can imagine writing two or three times that many in some parts of town and still having plenty of time left for lunch.
And staying with the management perspective for a bit, there is a reason motor cops are called “bucketheads,” and it’s not just the helmets they wear. As a breed, they are among the more ornery of the species. They are rather like the mules of police work: when properly motivated, they can achieve great things, but when the proper motivation is lacking, it’s all but impossible to get them to budge. Many a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain have been driven to near madness (and sometimes beyond, now that I think about it) by having to deal with cantankerous motor cops.
Also at issue in the officers’ lawsuit was the type of traffic tickets they were expected to write. They alleged that their captain expected 80 percent of their citations to be for “major movers,” i.e., those moving violations that most contribute to traffic collisions. The motor cop’s role, after all, is to reduce the frequency of serious collisions on their assigned beats, and this is best accomplished through high-visibility patrol and, yes, writing tickets. To those who claim that traffic tickets are nothing but revenue generators for the city, all I can say is that in all my years with the LAPD, including some time spent in traffic, I never heard a single word from anyone of any rank encouraging cops to write tickets so as to fatten the city’s coffers. Traffic enforcement, at least as it’s practiced in Los Angeles, is governed by collisions and citizen complaints, a spike in either of which will most often bring a team of motor cops to the affected area until the problem is resolved.
Having said all that, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the plaintiff officers, either. To understand why, it’s important that I explore for the reader some of the LAPD’s inner workings. When I became a cop more than 30 years ago, I assumed one had to be pretty smart to promote to the rank of sergeant, and even smarter to make it to lieutenant. To promote to captain, I assumed, one must be possessed of extraordinary intelligence, and to go beyond captain, to the ranks of commander and deputy chief, required nothing less than genius. It did not take long to disabuse me of these notions. Yes, there are some exceptionally bright people in the upper ranks of the LAPD, but there are of course just as many at the opposite end of the bell curve. And even among the smarter ones there are those for whom leadership is something to be talked about rather than practiced.
So from time to time there comes along a captain who has been wafted aloft through the ranks on the basis of considerations other than the ability to manage and lead. When such a person has proven himself inept at the rank of captain in one of the LAPD’s 21 patrol stations, he (or she, as the case may be) is sometimes installed in one of the city’s four traffic divisions under the theory that it is there, where the scope of his command is limited, that he can cause less damage to the department and the city. Captains assigned to traffic divisions know this and resent it, and they sometimes take their resentments out on their subordinates in the form of unreasonable expectations. For the seasoned motor cop, an unbroken line of marginal captains brings its frustrations, especially when each successive one tries to increase “productivity,” i.e., ticket writing, through suspect means.
Such was the case at West Traffic Division, from whose officers these lawsuits originated. The captain in question had transferred in from a patrol station where her leadership was found wanting, a deficiency that, ironically, earned her a promotion into the commanding officer’s chair at West Traffic. Eager to prove herself, she demanded that officers increase their ticket production, going so far as to memorialize in writing when they failed to do so. Her management style was all stick and no carrot, and some of the officers responded as anyone with common sense would have expected. In the 2011 case, a jury agreed with the officers that the captain had imposed a de facto quota; when the officers in the more recent case made identical claims with identical evidence, the city had little choice but to settle the case for about half the amount a jury would likely have awarded.
And in case you’re wondering, the captain has been promoted and transferred yet again, much to the delight of her former subordinates and the chagrin of her new ones. I haven’t yet heard of any lawsuits coming out of her current command, but I suppose it’s just a matter of time.