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Atlanta Police Department’s Quota System Harms Us All

By Abby Cook, Southern Center for Human Rights Microsoft Fellow

On April 11, 2022, CBS46 released a damning investigation into the Atlanta Police Department (APD)’s use of quota systems. The investigation was sparked after an anonymous police officer submitted a picture of ‘evaluations’ done by APD on their officers. 

APD’s Zone One “Morning Watch Performance Evaluation Chart” depicts various forms of community contact such as traffic stops (1.5 points) and municipal/city charges (3 points). Each officer is given a “target goal” corresponding to the number of days they work. At the end of the period, they are given final evaluations such as “highly satisfactory” or “unacceptable.”

Quotas are defined as “formal and informal measures that require police officers to issue a particular number of citations or make a certain number of arrests,” and are often defended as community safety measures to ensure police are productive. However, decades of research points to the exact opposite.

Academics, politicians, and citizens find that quotas often lead to unnecessary community contact that can perversely incentivize police officers. With quota systems, police officers are not serving the interest of the public, they are serving the interest of political narratives and personal benefits like “overtime, barbeque, pizza, gift cards, car wash coupons, and trophies to officers who meet quotas” (Oseei-Owusu, 2021).

This is not unique to Atlanta – quota systems have been reported in other major cities such as New York and Ferguson, Missouri. Another common thread between cities whose police departments use quota systems appears to be the denial of their existence. More subtle commonalities surface in the fallout of the communities affected. 

When the police are not working for the taxpayer, the community finds itself at risk both physically and economically. Past reports have found that quota systems for citations have been used to increase police revenue. Police Scorecard notes that $243.62 million has been taken from the Atlanta community in fines and forfeitures between 2010 and 2019–about 27 million dollars a year. Coupled with their $230 million annual budget, taxpayers are taking a hit from APD’s ‘innovative’ streams of revenue. 

Beyond the economic impact of quota systems, the increased and unnecessary community contact tends to come at the expense of Black and Latinx people in Atlanta. One of the most upsetting examples was the killing of an elderly woman, Kathryn Johnston, in 2006 by APD officers who broke into her home with an unlawfully secured No Knock Warrant. 

The officer’s defense attorney noted that, ‘officers cut corners in order to “be considered productive officers and to meet A.P.D. ‘s performance targets.”’ 

In Police Quotas by Shaun Ossei-Owusu, the author notes comments made by officers describing “how officers would “go hunting” in Black and Latinx neighborhoods and compete to see who could issue the most tickets.” Referring back to the Police ScoreCard, APD was found to have more racial disparities in their use of deadly force than 88% of national police departments. This conclusion was drawn from aggregated data sourced from the Uniform Crime Report, LEMAS, and Mapping Police Violence indicating 86% of people arrested in Atlanta are Black; and Black people are 6.8 times as likely to be arrested for a low-level nonviolent offense than white people—despite Atlanta’s 49.8% Black population, it appears that their interactions with police are grossly disproportionate. 

APD’s use of a quota system perpetuates systemic racism. 

On May 18th, 2022, Nygil Cullins, a young Black man who needed help for a mental health crisis, was shot and killed by an APD officer. 

Mr. Cullins’ mother called first responders for her son’s ‘manic state,’ but police did not arrive until an hour and twenty minutes after her first call. By this time, Mr. Cullins had already left his apartment and headed to Fogo De Chao, a local restaurant where he had been employed. Again, police were called, but were not dispatched until the second call. Management stated twice that the man was armed, but not discharging or using his weapon threateningly. 

Within minutes of the police’s arrival, Nygil Cullins was shot dead. In the aftermath, APD congratulated themselves on isolating “the subject to the front of the business where no patrons were in harm’s way.” 

In APD’s quota system, calls for service – which would include mental health crises and wellness checks – are given a weight of 0.25 on the evaluation chart. Officers are less incentivized to assist the community in manners that include wellness checks, noise complaints, or other ‘non-threatening’ circumstances. 

APD has $36 million more than 2019, and more officers per population than 87% of police departments

Even after Mr. Cullins arrived at the restaurant, the police were still slow to respond. It wasn’t until the second call at 7:24 PM that officers were dispatched at 7:29 PM, twenty minutes after the first call. Perhaps incentivized by community contact that includes a gun (a recovered gun is 3 points) or the possibility of a misdemeanor or felony arrest (4 and 5 points, respectively) police finally responded. 

The only question left is: could the outcome have been different for Mr. Cullins if mental health calls were considered more important to Atlanta police, or, better yet, if these calls weren’t handled by the police at all? APD has since released statements claiming that the ‘evaluation chart’ posted in the Zone 1 precinct was outdated, and that their new system incentivizes de-escalation tactics when interacting with members of the community. 

Incentivizing, even subtly, police to use excessive force against community members is incredibly dangerous. Our development as a safe and just city is dependent on how our police treat us, and a key step could be removing harmful quota systems.