The Gretna Police Department last year began an illegal quota system that required officers to write three traffic tickets per day and make at least one arrest every two days, according to a former officer who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit and brought the allegations to the FBI.
The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court, claims department brass retaliated against the officer, Daniel Swear, for what they said was making “defamatory statements” about the department. It says they urged him to resign earlier this year.
Swear, who, less than a year before his resignation, had been named officer of the month by his supervisors, joined the department in late 2010 and eventually became a field training officer.
About a week before Christmas last year, Swear attended a mandatory meeting in which he learned the Police Department had instituted a quota policy, the lawsuit says, a new requirement that included “mandatory disciplinary action for any noncompliance.”
Deputy Police Chief Anthony Christiana said Thursday that the department expects officers to take a proactive approach to policing, including enforcing the city’s traffic laws and keeping a constant eye out for suspicious activity. But he denied Swear’s allegations, saying he was “relatively perplexed” as to where they’re coming from.
“The Gretna Police Department does not have a quota system and has never had a quota system,” Christiana said. “But there’s a level of productivity expected anywhere you work.”
While the lawsuit said an FBI agent met with Swear “on several occasions” about the quota system, Christiana said federal authorities have not contacted the department about Swear’s allegations.
Craig Betbeze, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau had no comment.
Police quotas have long stirred controversy, and they drew new national attention this year after a U.S. Justice Department probe of the Ferguson Police Department found that many officers in that small Missouri city appeared to view residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
Quotas have been outlawed in Louisiana since 2008, when lawmakers passed a bill making it illegal for law enforcement agencies to even “suggest” to their officers that they are “required or expected to make a predetermined or specified number” of arrests or traffic citations.
The statute further forbids agencies from offering “a financial reward or other benefit” to officers based on the number of citations they issue.
“It looked like the entire state was becoming one huge speed trap,” said Joe McPherson, a former state senator from Rapides Parish who sponsored the law in 2008. “At that time, we had numerous towns that were making huge portions of their annual revenues off of tickets.”
The whistleblower lawsuit does not offer any reason — financial or otherwise — that the Gretna Police Department allegedly ushered in a quota system. But it says Swear knew from the outset that the system wasn’t legal and told his supervisor that the plan “was expressly prohibited by state law and that he did not intend to participate in the unlawful activity.”
Swear spoke out against the quota system to “members of the public,” including friends and family, the lawsuit says, and also took his concerns to the New Orleans FBI office and the state Office of Inspector General, an agency that, in 2012, launched an investigation into similar allegations made by a former police officer in Henderson.
The inspector general found that Acadiana town had generated more than $2.4 million in traffic fines and forfeitures from 2009 to 2011 — or about 80 percent of the town’s budget during that period. In that case, the Henderson police chief and deputy chief were accused of overseeing a quota system that allowed officers to make $15 per ticket issued along Interstate 10, so long as they issued at least two tickets per hour.
Swear, the former Gretna officer, claims that his supervisors summoned him to a meeting in early February and threatened to fire him “if he failed to participate in and meet the assigned quota.” He instead chose to resign, giving two weeks’ written notice.
A week later, the lawsuit alleges, Capt. Scott Vinson called Swear into another meeting and told him “he was being written up for making defamatory statements concerning the ethics of the Gretna Police Department.” It says Vinson urged the officer to resign immediately.
“Mr. Swear was disciplined and constructively discharged from his employment for speaking out against the quota system and (refusing) to participate therein,” the lawsuit says, accusing Vinson and Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson of “First Amendment discrimination and retaliation.” The lawsuit seeks damages and a permanent injunction barring the department from enforcing the quota system.
Christiana denied that Swear was urged to resign, saying the officer left the department “on his own accord” to attend college. He said Swear had to be counseled during his time on the force for productivity and “job performance issues.”
“At one point there was disciplinary action because of adherence to rules and regulations,” Christiana said.
Swear and his attorneys did not return messages seeking comment.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.