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A story carried on and elsewhere describes what some people are calling a “quota system” at the Las Cruces, NM Police Department. Officers there are required to accumulate 90 “activity points” per month, or face disciplinary action. Activity points come from completing field interview cards, citizen contacts, and traffic citations, among other tasks.

Comments on the article are numerous, and as near as I can tell, negative. The Las Cruces chief, who came to them from the New Mexico State Police (NMSP), seems to be the only one who thinks this is a good idea.

A traffic enforcement-oriented agency like the NMSP lends itself a little better to a points system like this, because the range of activities its officers engage in is somewhat more limited. Traffic officers assist stranded motorists, write traffic citations, arrest drivers who are drunk or driving with suspended licenses, and investigate accidents. To a lesser degree, they recover stolen vehicles, perform interdiction of narcotics and human trafficking, and arrest fugitives. Nearly all of those activities begin with either a traffic stop or being dispatched to the scene of an incident, and those incidents are easy to track.

A patrol officer performs all of the tasks of a traffic officer, and many, many more. A good patrol officer is the primary broker of community services that can be brought to bear on a problem. He makes use of chaplains, counseling services, rehabilitation agencies, battered women’s shelters, and yes, jails. A points system ignores the quality component of an officer’s work. How many problems did he solve this month? How has the quality of life improved or suffered in his patrol area? How creative was he in invoking community resources other than fines and imprisonment to bear on the problems he encountered?

A points system serves the lazy supervisor. A sergeant or lieutenant who wants to play the role of The Eternal Flame (“he never goes out”) can sit in the office and add up points from his officers’ computer-generated activity histories, and never bother to see what is actually going on in the real world. He can rejoice in the blissful ignorance of officers who are filling out field interview cards from cemetery headstones and writing tickets for 6 miles an hour over the speed limit. They rack up their points quickly and can then retire to the diner or fire station, where they watch TV and read the newspaper the rest of the month.

Good police work is never easy. Because the landscape changes with each passing day, the tactics change as well. You can put on the greatest show since Achilles slew Hector today, and tomorrow there will be a fresh steaming pile in the middle of your beat, waiting for you to clean it up. It is not for the faint of heart, or the easily discouraged. Meaningful changes come slowly and require constant nurturing if they are to endure.

This chief needs to get his head out of his ass and his ass out of his chair. Get out into the community and see what problems there are. Make your supervisors into mentors, rather than managers. It won’t be easy, but good police work never is.

Written by Tim Dees on May 19th, 2011