In January 2014, a Gretna police lieutenant pulled one of his subordinates in for a performance review. The lieutenant’s voice was calm but contemptuous.
In an exchange captured on an audio recording, Lt. J.R. Rogers made it clear that the officer needed to make more arrests to keep his job.
“You are held to one arrest — at least one arrest per day. Let the (expletives) at jail see you, or write somebody a summons,” Rogers said. “You meet the goals, you will maintain your job here. If you don’t meet them, I am going to be forced to submit you for termination.”
Louisiana law prohibits police departments from setting quotas for arrests and from disciplining employees for missing arrest quotas.
The officer who was on the receiving end of Rogers' tirade, no longer with the force, is now one of four former Gretna cops to accuse the department of running an illegal quota system.
The allegations first burst into public view two years ago with a lawsuit from former officer Daniel Swear alleging that he was forced to resign for speaking out against the quota system.
As that case heads to a December trial, documents filed in court this week provide a wealth of new information about the inner workings of a tight-knit police force of just over 100 officers.
In at least two instances, ranking officers were caught on tape talking about the department's “quotas."
A captain is accused of marking up a whiteboard to chart officers’ monthly arrests. Swear and two other officers say the same captain ordered them to hit the streets to gin up fees that would help make up for a potential $1 million budget shortfall.
The Gretna Police Department denies the allegations of arrest quotas. In court documents, its lawyers have cast all four of the people making the accusations as "former Gretna Police Department officers with axes to grind."
But regardless of how Swear’s case shakes out in court, his lawsuit provides a rare window into police practices in Gretna, which has been dubbed the arrest capital of the world for the eye-popping numbers of people who get booked there.
Souring on his department
Daniel Swear, 26, was still young when he joined the force. A graduate of Jesuit High School, he went through one semester at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before returning to his home parish to go through the Gretna police academy. The force hired him as a 911 dispatcher in December 2010.
Two years later, Swear transferred to the patrol division. In court documents, he describes himself as an idealistic officer.
“I'm very pro-police,” Swear said in a deposition this summer. “I relied on these guys that I went to work with every night to go home to my family at the end of the shift, just like they relied on me to do the same thing.”
Swear said that as he spent his nights cruising around Gretna's small footprint, he quickly became aware that the Police Department made strict demands of its officers. They were expected to strive for a “10-2-2” goal: handle at least 10 stops or 911 calls a day, write at least two citations and make at least two arrests.
Swear said it was Scott Vinson, at the time a lieutenant, who first told him about those goals. Vinson was the “quintessential patrolman,” Swear said.
Vinson, a 21-year Gretna veteran, at the time oversaw all of the beat cops who patrolled the city’s streets. He was later demoted for failing to report a 2016 incident in which another officer kicked a handcuffed suspect.
“He is the person that we all looked up to. He probably taught me more about police work than anybody else that I worked (with) there,” Swear said.
After several years of long shifts, Swear’s attitude toward the force seems to have soured. He was reprimanded and suspended for three days in August 2014 for disobeying orders.
He was also turning against the “10-2-2” system. At one point, he had a novelty license plate made for the front of his personal vehicle. It read “RS 40:2401.1” — the Louisiana law prohibiting arrest quotas.
In December 2014, he and other Gretna police officers say they were pulled in for a fateful meeting with Vinson. The department had a problem, Swear says Vinson told his troops.
Since 2009, Gretna had been raking in money with the help of a company called Redflex that catches speeding motorists with special camera cars. But angry voters were turning against the cameras. Meanwhile, Redflex had been caught bribing Chicago politicians.
Swear says Vinson gave what he calls “the million-dollar speech”: If the Redflex money stopped, the Gretna Police Department’s budget would be $1 million in the red.
“The financial ramifications were that if we did not close this million-dollar gap that potentially they would have to stop paying for the employees' health insurance and that the system that was set in place that we didn't pay into our own retirement would possibly have to go away,” Swear said.
Swear said Vinson outlined his goal of making the patrol division “financially independent of Redflex.” According to Swear, Vinson handed the conversation off to Sgt. Danielle Rodriguez, who informed the officers that they needed to make three citations a day and one arrest every two days.
Swear said the new numbers were no longer a goal. They were marching orders.
“We went years coming to work having fun with just a goal. Now they are telling us that you have to have three tickets a day and one arrest every two days,” Swear told Rodriguez soon afterward, in a conversation that he recorded.
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The direct link between the officers’ arrest numbers and their paychecks left Swear shocked, he said.
“That was my professional adult version of finding out Santa Claus wasn't real. I questioned everything that I had done since I got out of the police academy in that, was I out there making a difference the entire time, or was this the method behind the madness from day one?” Swear said.
Within weeks, Swear had left the force under disputed circumstances.
The Gretna Police Department says Swear’s productivity dropped throughout the month of December. On Jan. 13, Rodriguez gave him an oral reprimand for “unsatisfactory performance.”
Then, at roll call on Jan. 27, Swear gave another sergeant who had recently been passed over for promotion a crude gag gift of knee pads, Vaseline and ink-pen refills, according to the sergeant, David Heintz.
Heintz says the pen refills, at least, were a reference to needing to write up his team members more often for failing to meet their quota. The other "gifts" had a lewder connotation. Heintz thought the joke was “funny,” but Rodriguez did not.
Rodriguez wrote up a formal complaint against Swear on Feb. 2. Swear said that around that time, he tried to reach out to Deputy Chief Anthony Christiana, who runs most of the department’s day-to-day operations, to complain about the quota system. The same day he was pulled in for a meeting with Vinson.
Vinson yelled at him for trying to break the chain of command, Swear said. Then he told Swear that he was demoting him, according to the former officer, “so that I could not spread any more poison about the illegal quota system.”
Swear said he tendered a letter of resignation that day. A week later, he said, he had another meeting with Vinson, who told him he had to resign or face an investigation for making defamatory comments.
Swear, now a deputy with the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, said he took his concerns about the quota system to an FBI agent. On Sept. 23, 2015, the agent told Swear that there would be no federal criminal investigation.
Swear filed a federal lawsuit on Dec. 8, 2015, alleging he was forced to resign for speaking out against the quotas. He is seeking unspecified damages.
Gretna fights back
In court filings, the City of Gretna has never budged from its position that there are no quotas in place. On Sept. 25, its lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown to dismiss the case before it goes to trial. She is set to consider their arguments at a hearing Wednesday.
Gretna's lawyers say none of Swear's witnesses have been able to link longtime Chief Arthur Lawson to any quota allegations.
“Mr. Swear acknowledged in his deposition that he has NO evidence that Chief Lawson had any knowledge of a quota system, and further that he had only met Chief Lawson at a Christmas party. It is undisputed that the plaintiff’s entire claim is rooted in his own interpretation of a ‘speech’ that took place on one day in December 2014 and not on an official policy of the Gretna Police Department,” the attorneys for Gretna said in a court filing.
The lawyers said the purpose of Vinson’s speech was not to proclaim a new and harsher quota system. Instead it was to light a fire under the laggards of the police force, they said.
“In actuality, the reason for the meeting was that a recent evaluation discovered that patrol officers were performing approximately one and a half hours of actual work during a 12-hour shift and more dedication to duty was expected by the citizens of Gretna,” Gretna’s lawyers said.
Gretna officials maintain that Swear’s departure from the force was voluntary. It also came after a series of “transgressions” including the “sexually charged ruse” involving Heintz, the city attorneys say.
Meanwhile, the lawyers also pointed to the shifting details of the alleged quotas. Swear said there was a “10-2-2” system, then complained about a different system requiring three citations a day and one arrest every other day, they said.
To underscore its point, Gretna has filed into the court record nearly identical affidavits from Lawson, Christiana and 16 other officers, including Vinson, swearing there was no quota system.
However, Swear also rounded up a group of former officers to back up his allegations. Heintz as well as former officers Paul Pichoff and Paige Brouillette all say in sworn affidavits that they were required to fulfill quotas. Heintz and Brouillette both say they heard the “million-dollar speech.”
Given that he was a sergeant, the testimony of Heintz — who was on the receiving end of Swear’s Vaseline joke — may be the most damaging for Gretna. He became a Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office deputy in 1993, then a Gretna officer in 2006 before leaving in January.
Like Swear, Heintz said he became aware of a quota system almost as soon as he put on a Gretna uniform. But the requirements on officers kicked into high gear after the December 2014 meeting with Vinson, he said.
Vinson told the officers “this directive came straight from the chief,” Heintz said. “We were told to be more (productive), in order to increase revenue by means of making more arrest(s) and writing more tickets,” he said.
Red or green checks
He added that Vinson also sent patrol supervisors like Heintz photos of a whiteboard in his office showing officer statistics. A red check meant the officer had failed his or her quota, and a green star or check meant they had passed, according to Heintz.
Gretna's lawyers suggest that the board was nothing more than a "motivational prop."
Meanwhile, both Swear and another officer made surreptitious recordings with their supervisors discussing expectations for arrests.
Pichoff recorded the conversation with Lt. J.R. Rogers in January 2014 in which the supervisor told him to "let the (expletives) at jail see you." Rogers also made other profane comments about Pichoff meeting his “goals,” although he at times called them "quotas."
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At another point, Rogers told Pichoff to focus on arresting people who would pay their fines and fees. Two regular arrestees “don’t count because there is no money going into the system,” Rogers said. “Those guys don’t go to court. They don’t pay their fines. I am talking about good strong solid arrests with convictions and/or make people pay their fines.”
Rogers, who served with the Gretna Police Department from 1985 until last year, wrote in a sworn affidavit that he had never heard of a quota there. Gretna's lawyers say the tape does not prove there was one.
"The transcript of Mr. Pichoff’s evaluation reveals two things: (1) supervisors’ attempts to motivate an officer having potential but currently not doing his job and (2) that no predetermined and specified numbers were in existence under any official policy," they say.
In the second audiotaped conversation on the court record, Swear spoke with Rodriguez about his quota concerns the month after Vinson’s speech. At one point, Rodriguez recalled trying to juggle making arrests and responding to crimes when she worked as a patrol officer in one tough neighborhood.
“They wanted me to get my stats — and get my stats in 10, 2 and 2,” Rodriguez said. “This is what kills — that is hard. Two arrests?”
Still, she drew a distinction between arrests and traffic tickets. “The ticket thing is all about the money,” Rodriguez said. “The arrests to me is about doing police work.”
Gretna's lawyers say Swear has presented no proof Lawson knew of or instituted a quota.
By themselves, the supervisors’ taped conversations are not proof positive of an official quota, but they are disturbing, said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. She said states like Louisiana ban arrest quotas for a simple reason.
“Law enforcement is supposed to be all about keeping communities safe, not about arresting somebody just so you can arrest somebody,” she said. "If you know that the police in your community are looking for collars, they’re going to find them. That means that nobody is safe from the police, nobody is safe from being victims of the people who are there supposedly to protect them."
A contentious moment
Swear’s lawsuit is moving through the courts at a time when court fines and fees are under public scrutiny more than ever before. The killing of black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of a white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in 2014 led to a deeper exploration of the harsh penalties that courts there placed on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report found that Ferguson operated its court system like a cash register, charging a wide range of fines and fees on poor residents to balance its budget.
The feds said Ferguson commanders even posted a list of the number of tickets issued by each officer inside the police station — an echo of the board Vinson is accused of keeping on his wall.
Last month, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report that included a list of the 25 American cities drawing the highest percentage of their revenue from fines and fees in 2012. Ferguson ranked 18th, taking in 12.9 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets, court fines and so on. Just four spots lower was Gretna, which drew 12.2 percent of its revenue from fines and fees.
The city of Gretna received national scrutiny ealier this week when a popular television sta…
The online news outlet Fusion reported last year that an analysis of FBI data revealed that Gretna had more arrests on a per-capita basis than any other place in the country. In 2013 the department arrested 6,556 adults in a community with a total population of 18,000 people.
Gretna continues to use the Redflex camera cars. The Police Department declined to comment on Swear’s lawsuit, but in an interview with Fusion last year, Lawson denied there was a quota.
Christiana, the deputy chief, made similar comments when the suit was first filed.
“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.”