A jury awarded a pair of Los Angeles police officers $2 million Monday after determining that LAPD supervisors had retaliated against the officers for complaining about alleged traffic ticket quotas.
Howard Chan and David Benioff, both veteran motorcycle officers with the department’s West Traffic Division, sued the department in 2009, alleging that they had been punished with bogus performance reviews, threats of reassignment and other forms of harassment after objecting to demands from commanding officers that they write a certain number of tickets each day, according to the suit.
Ticket quotas are illegal under state law, since they can pressure police to write spurious tickets to meet the goal. The line between setting a quota and pushing officers to increase their productivity is a delicate one for field supervisors, who are often under pressure themselves to generate more citations.
“We’re very hopeful that this will put an end to fleecing motorists on the west side of Los Angeles,” said Benioff’s attorney, Gregory Smith. “Quotas are a direct violation of the vehicle code, and this case was about these officers being asked to break the law.”
Police officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. John Franklin, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, which defended the LAPD in the case, said city lawyers are reviewing the verdict and will decide whether to appeal.
The case goes back to late 2006, when command of the traffic division was handed over to Capt. Nancy Lauer. Chan and Benioff alleged in their lawsuit that Lauer and her sergeants and lieutenants made it clear to officers that they were expected to write at least 18 tickets each day. The number of tickets an officer wrote was recorded on their performance evaluation, the suit alleged.
Chan and Benioff said that supervisors ranked them against other officers based on the number of tickets they wrote and cars they impounded, which is also a violation of state law.
Lauer denied in testimony that there had been a stated quota, saying instead that there was “apparently some confusion” among officers over the use of the number 18 on evaluations, which she said had probably been “a goal” for officers instead of a quota.
The officers’ complaints led to meetings in 2009 between police union leaders and LAPD officials, who signed an agreement that clarified the ban on quotas. Nonetheless, Chan and Benioff pursued their lawsuit, alleging that they had already been punished for complaining.
Benioff said that after he raised concerns about the ticket quotas, he was given undesirable assignments and that supervisors used unsubstantiated complaints from motorists about his behavior to threaten him with removal from the highly coveted motorcycle patrols and possible suspension. Chan made similar allegations.
Attorney Shaun Dabbe Jacobs, who argued the case for the city, tried to persuade jurors that the department had simply established broad goals rather than specific quotas, and that supervisors were trying to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities.
In testimony, the officers said they were ordered to scrap regular patrol assignments and sent instead to specific streets where they were more likely to catch motorists committing moving violations. Though not illegal, being sent to those so-called “orchards” or “cherry patches,” they said, reinforced the belief that hitting ticket targets trumped other aspects of the job.
All but one of the 12 jurors in the case sided with the officers, concluding that the officers’ reputations and specific employment actions against the officers by the department affected their careers after they reported the misconduct and refused to meet the quotas.
The verdict dealt the city a particularly harsh blow since lawyers in the city attorney’s office had rejected an offer from Smith to settle the case for $500,000, said Paul Weber, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers.
City Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD motorcycle sergeant, said he was disappointed with the verdict, saying the department should have resolved the matter long before it entered the court system.
“You can’t violate the law to enforce the law,” Zine said. “You can’t mandate the number of tickets.”