Serious traffic accidents gave rise to ticket push in Paso Robles

Paso Robles has an accident problem. For years it has ranked among the state’s most dangerous cities of its size when it comes to traffic accidents that cause deaths and injuries.

In 2009, for instance, the city had more such accidents than 75 percent of other cities its size in California.

Police Chief Lisa Solomon acknowledged that her department has made traffic enforcement a priority in recent years because of the city’s high rate of traffic-related injuries and deaths, and because of the loss of traffic and other law-enforcement officers. The city has lost 14 officers in the past four years, including all of its traffic officers, mostly due to attrition and a hiring freeze.

City Manager Jim App concurred with Solomon, noting that the city wants safer streets.

The Paso Robles Police Department began to emphasize ticketing to reduce collisions before Solomon took over as chief, according to a department supervisor who was not given permission to speak on the record. Solomon continued that focus, according to former and current officers. A March 31 memo from Solomon to all sworn personnel about traffic-enforcement expectations also made this clear. The memo was obtained by The Tribune.

The department looked at how many tickets officers had been writing and found that it was low, the supervisor said.

“So at that time we said, ‘We need to recalibrate. These guys are not writing any tickets. That’s not acceptable.”

To reduce the number of accidents in the city, the department needed to start writing more tickets, because more citations equals fewer accidents, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety. The thinking behind this approach is that ticketing acts as an incentive for drivers to behave better behind the wheel, OTS spokesman Chris Cochran said.

But the increased focus on traffic enforcement, paired with a declining number of officers, and a belief among some in the rank-and-file that traffic enforcement was not the most important duty, came with a cost.

Although the department leadership emphatically reminded officers that traffic enforcement is as important a duty as arresting felons, some officers interpreted it as a heavy-handed — and illegal — imposition of ticket quotas.

The result: some confusion among the staff.

Some officers say there was a quota, and a lawsuit filed in December by former Paso Robles Police Officers Association President Jon Tatro claims there was an unofficial quota system enforced by the department’s management, and officers who failed to fulfill their quotas were punished.

The California Vehicle Code forbids law enforcement agencies from forcing officers to meet quotas for traffic citations. It also forbids law enforcement agencies from using the number of citations issued by an officer as the sole reason for promoting, demoting, reassigning, firing or otherwise disciplining an officer.

The memo

Traffic enforcement had been emphasized at the department since 2006, according to current and former officers interviewed by The Tribune.

Yet despite such efforts, traffic-related ticketing has been declining since 2007, with a 66 percent drop last year over 2010.

To remind patrol officers who normally don’t write many traffic tickets to start doing so, and to make clear that this request was not a quota, Solomon sent a memo to all sworn personnel on March 31.

The memo, titled “Traffic Enforcement Expectations,” denied there was a quota system.

“The department does not have any particular targets or benchmark in each category that officers are required to meet; our goal is simply to see whether the stats show positive activity levels across the board,” Solomon wrote.

While Solomon said the memo was written in part to address issues raised by Tatro (he filed his lawsuit nine months later), she told The Tribune that because he had talked to some officers, she wanted everyone to be on the same page.

The memo specifically mentions more than one complaint:

“A number of complaints have come up over time regarding traffic enforcement,” Solomon wrote. “We have also had some concerns raised about whether our use of these statistics creates an improper ‘arrest quota,’ ” Solomon continued, adding that the city attorney’s opinion was that the policy did not constitute a quota.

App, the city manager, said he asked Solomon to write the memo to address Tatro’s concerns, and to clarify to officers that Paso Robles’ policy of collecting arrest and citation statistics was legal.

“There was no quota and the memo was a reflection of that to the troops,” he told The Tribune.

App said there was a priority for patrol officers to enforce traffic laws in part because of the shrinking ranks of the force. There were 40 officers when Solomon became chief; that fell to 27 last year.

The memo emphasizes the need for patrol officers to “vigorously enforce” traffic laws in light of a decline in the number of officers on the streets.

“Our purpose is to improve safety,” App said.

The memo points out that traffic tickets are just one aspect of an officer’s duties, but with the loss of the department’s traffic units, there is a greater need for enforcement from patrol units.

It goes on to say that a priority should be given to hazardous citations and violations that are likely to cause accidents such as running stop lights, stop signs or excessive speeding.

It notes that such ticketing will be used as “one metric — along with several others — to measure and evaluate officer activity levels and overall performance.’’

“I don’t think there was a mixed message sent,” said Solomon about quotas.

The supervisor in the department told The Tribune, however, that there could have been some confusion because some officers thought if they wrote 10 tickets a month they would be left alone by their superiors and assumed that was because they had met a quota.

The Tribune received a copy of the memo in response to a Public Records Act request.

Officers’ views

Four former and current police officers interviewed by The Tribune said that despite the department’s denials, the clear message from the top was that there was a quota.

Jeff Bromby, who was with the department from January 2007 to June 2011, said officers heard from superiors if they had not given enough citations.

“People got written up for not writing enough tickets,” he said in a telephone interview.

Bromby has charges pending against him by the San Luis Obispo District Attorney’s Office for alleged unlawful use of Paso Robles Police Department records.

Though Bromby said he resigned, the department supervisor said Bromby quit instead of being fired for reasons related to the charges against him.

T.J. McCall, an officer who has been with the department since September 2007 but is now on medical leave, said managers would try to make quotas nonofficial. If an officer did not issue a minimum of 10 traffic tickets a month, then he would be written up, he said.

“I was told by a sergeant that I was spending too much time arresting people and needed to be out on the street and be more visible,” McCall said about the pressure to write tickets.

In his yearly evaluation, supervisors told him he needed to write more tickets, he said.

So McCall said he would get his quota out of the way in the first part of the month so he could then concentrate on crime.

“To have someone focus on tickets, it was causing officers to go out there and purposely push tickets.”

Two other officers said that Solomon’s priority has always been on traffic.

“Her (Solomon’s) focus was traffic, and if we didn’t like it we could go somewhere else,” said David Hernandez, who was with the department from February 2000 until his resignation Jan. 11 after being on administrative leave for several months.

He cited the department’s heavy-handed leadership as the reason he left.

Hernandez said there was definitely a quota, but he didn’t know why.

Fletcher Stone, who was a traffic officer with the department from October 2006 until he resigned in May 2010, said he never had anyone tell him outright that there was a quota, but believes there was an unspoken pressure when it came to tickets.

“As long as you wrote tickets, they left you alone,” he said.

If an officer didn’t have enough tickets, then he’d be put on a performance improvement plan, Stone said. The issue with tickets, Stone said, was more about quantity than quality. He said it was a shotgun approach, rather than a focused attack on areas where accidents occurred.

“You’re just writing tickets to write tickets, not because writing tickets in that area is going to affect the reason why accidents occur.”

Solomon disagreed, contending that they concentrated their efforts in areas where more accidents occurred.

Stone now works for the Burbank Police Department. He said he left Paso Robles because of its heavy-handed approach to managing staff.