How Tampa Cops Are Incentivized to Arrest, Abuse and Ticket People

Tampa Police

You may not know it, but your odds of getting in trouble skyrocket in Tampa.

No valid license? You’re twice as likely to get a ticket than in the rest of Florida.

No proof of insurance? Also double the chance.

Tampa police wrote more tickets last year than sheriff’s offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties combined; more per capita than cops in Jacksonville, Miami, St. Petersburg and Orlando, the state’s four other largest cities.

And no other law enforcement agency in the state arrests more people than the Tampa Police Department.

Once you understand how the department measures officer productivity, it’s easy to see why.

Each arrest, each ticket, feeds into a formula that calculates an officer’s “productivity ratio” — number of hours worked divided by the number of tickets and arrests.

The more officers do, the better they score.

But the formula doesn’t discriminate between a murder arrest and a jaywalking ticket; they carry the same weight.

For years, the policy has put pressure on officers to crank out arrests and tickets, leading to allegations of harassment, racial profiling and over-policing.

Case in point: this year’s Tampa Bay Times investigation revealing how Tampa police wrote more tickets for bicycle offenses than any other law enforcement agency in the state, and that eight out of 10 of the cyclists were black.

In a series of community forums and public hearings that followed, complaints circled back to the idea that residents of high-crime neighborhoods — where the department allocates more officers — felt like the aggressive policing was something happening to them, not for them .

Jon Dengler, a white 35-year-old who runs a ministry to feed the poor, lives in Ybor Heights. In the past six years, he has gotten nine traffic tickets in Tampa, but not a single one for bad driving. In 2013, he got three from the same officer, adding up to $345, because his registration had expired and he didn’t have his insurance card or license handy. Two of those tickets were dismissed.

“I love our neighborhood and I don’t feel anxious or afraid,” he told City Council earlier this year. “But when I see TPD on the street, I do get nervous. I don’t get nervous because I’m up to no good, but because of who they are and represent in our community.”

A shift is now underway at the department, one that could change the way officers do their jobs.

It involves the new chief, a new formula and a new definition for what it means to be “productive.”

Though the Tampa Police Department produces detailed statistics to make sure officers are doing their jobs — counting every report they write, tabulating every stolen penny they recover — the ratio has proven to be a powerful little number.

A good one glows on an evaluation. A bad one can stand in the way of a promotion, or even lead to a suspension.

“It was a good program set up to get rid of the guys who weren’t producing, sitting under a tree all night,” said Brian Reschke, a patrol officer who retired in 2011. “It just got carried away.”


To understand how the department got to this point, you need to go back to 2001, when then-Police Chief Bennie Holder sought to come up with an answer to this question:

“You’ve got officers out there working for 40 hours,” he told the Times. “How do you know you’re getting 40 hours of work out of them?”

His administration implemented a series of measures modeled after tools used to evaluate production in corporate America. There was one that calculated time spent on public aid and one that showed how often an officer found a case instead of waiting for a call to come in.

All of those metrics are still in place today, but the one officers now refer to simply as the productivity ratio calculates how long it takes for an officer to either arrest or ticket someone.

It wasn’t supposed to be like a quota.

“This wasn’t made to say you have to give X number of tickets, make X numbers of arrests,” Holder told the Times. “You can be productive without writing 100 tickets or putting 100 people in jail.”

A lot of things happened after Chief Holder retired in 2003.

Chief Stephen Hogue, and later Chief Jane Castor, embraced a proactive policing model tasking officers with finding crime instead of waiting for calls. Technology and statistics became increasingly important, with analysts studying crime patterns and districts deploying resources to hot spots.

Crime dropped.

It’s dropped steadily across the nation, in part because of this kind of modern policing and in part because of societal factors outside of any one department’s control.

But by 2005, the department’s annual report attributed the lowest crime rate in 28 years to “productivity,” including a 14 percent increase in citations and a 15 percent increase in arrests.

The department arrested 10,859 more people that year — enough to fill half the city’s hockey arena — with growth mostly in the lowest category of offense, “miscellaneous” charges like driving with a suspended license.

“The assumption was, well if you go out and make more arrests and you write more tickets, crime is going to drop more,” said Vincent Gericitano, president of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.

By 2007, Tampa led the state in arrests; almost half the crimes were “miscellaneous.”

“Some supervisors looked at the productivity ratio as the only critique or metric on judging an officer’s productivity,” Gericitano said.

Officers who didn’t write many tickets were put on notice.

There was the officer “recognized by many children in the Belmont Heights area as a positive role model,” according to his evaluation.

Issue more traffic citations, his evaluation said.

There was one district’s “Officer of the Month,” also recognized for “catch of the month” twice in a year.

Improve traffic law enforcement … by 30 percent, he was told.

Then there was the officer whose supervisor noted, “He knows the area he patrols, but more importantly, he knows the people and the people know him… He does not talk at them or down to them … He is objective and leaves people feeling he was interested in serving them.”

Year after year, he was evaluated “below expectations” because of his poor productivity ratio.

He wrote letters to the administration calling the ratio “damaging… to the men and women who abandon their ideals to comply with it.”

If I could only change the way I treat people out here — see them less through the lens of sacred trust they place in us and more as stats to be harvested by us, resolution would be easy.

I could merely “play the game,” see what we do not as putting on a uniform but instead as wearing a costume, then achieve the magic number sought by my supervisors that could be — as one of my old captains said — “easily achieved within the first 10 minutes of each shift.”

The officer was ultimately cited with insubordination and violations of standards of conduct for refusing to increase traffic stops and failing to improve his productivity ratio.

He was suspended for three days.

Eric Ward became chief of police at a critical time this past May, as his department grappled with a spate of inner-city shootings, lack of witness cooperation and calls for a civil rights investigation of the racial disparity the Times found in bicycle tickets.

The department’s relationship with Tampa’s black community was under a microscope, and here came a man who knew both sides of that experience.

He remembers how angry he felt as a kid after an officer questioned him in a convenience store as he tried to buy a jug of milk.

But he also remembers playing in the Police Athletic League.

As a first order of business, Ward told officers to stop worrying so much about their statistics and focus on getting to know the people they police.

He told supervisors to look at the many activities the department already tracks for each officer instead of just the ratio.

“That old fashioned ‘arrest, arrest, arrest, citation, citation, citation’ is not the key. It’s not going to solve our problem with the crime,” Ward told the Times. “Getting back in to the community, walking around, talking to people. That alone will reduce crime.”

He talks of “quality over quantity,” of arresting “the right people,” of “discretion.”

He recalls telling an officer patrolling a park that if he saw kids throwing a ball around, he should join the game. “If you worry about your uniform getting dirty,” the chief said, “I’ll buy you a new uniform.”

The current formula considers tag football a waste of time.

Ward is hoping to change the math with the help of Sgt. Felicia Pecora, who says she has been trying to come up with a better way to measure productivity for years.

She downplayed the ratio’s influence on today’s department, saying supervisors take a more nuanced view than they did when it was first implemented. Nonetheless, she likened the ratio to “when Ford put out the Pinto.”

“It’s a beta version” she said. “Everybody’s got to start somewhere.”

In February, the department made a significant change to the ratio, giving officers credit for written warnings instead of just citations.

It shows in the data. Unless something drastic happens, Tampa is on track to have its lowest ticketing year in at least a decade.

Pecora’s rough draft of a new series of formulas doesn’t count tickets at all.

Among actions counted: traffic stops, street checks, guns seized, stolen cars recovered, reports written and arrests made from reports.

Instead of measuring how long it takes to accomplish these actions, it calculates the percentage of each of those things an officer contributes to a squad. It would still allow supervisors to spot those who aren’t pulling their weight, but would reward the investigative types along with the enforcers.

She calls it a “contribution ratio” and is running versions of it by the chief and her colleagues.

Pecora told of an incident earlier this month in which she and one of her officers tried to track down the owner of an abandoned, broken-down car. Their search led to a home in Belmont Heights and a frail, elderly woman who answered the door.

She said the car belonged to her son, and that he hadn’t been home since the previous night. They asked if she had eaten since then, and she said she was hungry. Pecora heated up some rice and beans and bought groceries to stock the woman’s pantry. By the time the sergeant returned, the son had arrived.

The officers lectured him about keeping his mother fed, closed out the car case and referred the family for elderly services.

None of it counted toward the productivity ratio.

From by Alexandra Zayas