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Fargo police set monthly target for traffic tickets

FARGO - Ever wonder whether Fargo's police officers have a number of traffic tickets they're expected to write each month? Well, they do. The proof comes in an email the city's interim police chief, David Todd, recently sent to all of his officer...

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FARGO - Ever wonder whether Fargo's police officers have a number of traffic tickets they're expected to write each month?

Well, they do.

The proof comes in an email the city's interim police chief, David Todd, recently sent to all of his officers. Obtained by The Forum through an open records request, the May 22 email says the chief wants officers to issue 20 to 25 citations a month.

But don't call it a quota.

Todd rejects that label because, he says, he's not setting a hard and fast number. Rather, he describes it as a "do-able average" that works out to about one or two tickets a day - a goal that half of his officers are already achieving.

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"I think the public has an expectation of us to do traffic enforcement," he said. "It seems reasonable that if you're out there working a 10-hour shift, then you probably come across a traffic violation at least once during your day."

Whether you call it a quota or an average, there's a history of controversy around putting a number on how many traffic tickets officers should write. Critics say quotas pressure officers to issue tickets when they otherwise would give warnings or take no action. Several states, including Minnesota, even have laws forbidding ticket quotas. North Dakota has no such law.

In 2000, Fargo's police chief at the time, Chris Magnus, grabbed headlines when he asked officers to write 25 traffic tickets a month. Like Todd, Magnus insisted this policy was not a quota.

Five years later, the Moorhead police officers' union filed a lawsuit against the city claiming that then-Chief Grant Weyland had imposed a ticket quota, or what he called a "performance standard." Officers had to meet the average number of traffic and drunken-driving citations issued in the previous month during the same shift, or else they would face discipline, the suit alleged.

Todd said Fargo officers who don't issue 20 to 25 citations a month would need to show commanders what responsibilities or vacation time kept them from writing tickets.

"If there's no supporting data as to why you're not doing traffic enforcement, then perhaps that leads to some type of review by your supervisors or a performance improvement plan," he said, adding that disciplinary action would only be taken against officers who consistently didn't write citations.

Grant Benjamin, president of North Dakota's Fraternal Order of Police, said such an arrangement puts officers on the defensive when they're evaluated.

"If you don't have your numbers up, you have to defend your actions," said Benjamin, a former Fargo officer. "I don't think that's a good working environment."

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Todd said one thing his traffic-ticket goal is not is a way to make money for the city, considering that many tickets range from just $10 to $20.

"It probably costs us money to write citations," he said.

Measuring stops, not tickets

Not long after David Ebinger was named Moorhead police chief in 2006, the ticket-quota lawsuit brought by the officers' union was resolved through mediation. Nowadays, Moorhead police don't track the number of citations officers write. Instead, supervisors keep a tally of the number of traffic stops officers make, Ebinger said.

"The officer then has an option of whether to issue a ticket or not," he said. "We're perfectly satisfied with an officer issuing a verbal warning."

Ebinger said there's no prescribed number of traffic stops expected of officers, but that they are judged alongside their colleagues. "You've got to be within a range of your fellow officers on the same shift," he said of traffic stops.

Along with Ebinger, West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan, Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist and Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney say their departments do not set numbers on how many tickets their officers should write. However, the North Dakota Highway Patrol is a different story.

Earlier this year, the patrol came under scrutiny after an internal email was made public, revealing yearly goals for Fargo-area troopers when it comes to issuing citations or warnings, including 60 for seat-belt violations and 240 for speeding.

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Lt. Tom Iverson, a patrol spokesman, said the numbers are simply goals, not quotas that troopers must meet.

'Something is going to give'

Todd said that when he was an officer, he liked knowing what was expected of him. When he started patrolling the streets almost 28 years ago, his superiors told him, "A ticket or two a day keeps the sergeant away," he said.

Todd, who became interim chief in November, said he drew from this adage in creating his goal of 20 to 25 tickets a month.

In his email, Todd contrasted himself to his predecessor, Chief Keith Ternes, who "would never tell us what was acceptable, just that we always had to do 'more,' " traffic enforcement, Todd wrote. "I don't like playing that game of ambiguity just to protect myself from an accusation of setting a quota."

Todd said he has not heard anything from officers concerning his ticket-writing goal. But regarding traffic enforcement in general, officers have told the chief the increasing number of calls for service has kept them from issuing citations.

So far this year, the number of traffic tickets written by Fargo police is down 33 percent compared with the same time in 2014. Meanwhile, calls for service have jumped 22 percent.

Benjamin said he thinks Todd's monthly target for tickets would be attainable if the department had more patrol officers to respond to the rising number of calls for service. He said there are days when officers have no spare time as they run from call to call.

"When you're short on the street, and you're short in staffing, and you're putting (traffic enforcement) as a high priority along with everything else, something is going to give," Benjamin said.

At times last year, the Police Department was 27 officers shy of its allocated number of 149 officers, Todd said. This year, the department is authorized to have 156 officers, but five vacancies remain, and 11 officers are still in training, the chief said.

Todd said there's only one way to make more time for officers to write traffic tickets.

"That's by getting more cops," he said.

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