The American public is slowly recognizing the criminal justice system’s deep defects. Mounting visual evidence of police brutality and social protests are generating an appetite for something different. How to change this system is still an open question. People across the political spectrum vary in their conceptions of the pressing problems and how to solve them. Interestingly, there is one consequential and overlooked area of the criminal justice system where there is broad consensus: police quotas.
Police quotas are formal and informal measures that require police officers to issue a particular number of citations or make a certain number of arrests. Although law enforcement leadership typically denies implementing quotas, courts, legislators, and officers have all confirmed the existence of this practice and linked it to odious criminal justice problems such as racial profiling, policing for profit, and overcriminalization. These problems have led legislators in many states to implement statutory prohibitions on quotas. Some of these statutes are of recent vintage and others are decades old. Nevertheless, these prohibitions and their attendant litigation have escaped sustained analytical scrutiny. Legal scholars typically overlook police quotas, subsume them within other categories (e.g., broken windows policing), or give pat acknowledgment of their existence without explaining how they work.
This Article corrects these omissions and makes two arguments. First, it contends that police quotas are a significant but undertheorized feature of criminal law and procedure. Quotas make police rewards and sanctions significant features of punishment in ways that can trump criminal offending and pervert due process principles. Second, it argues that quota-based policing is a unique area where there is widespread agreement and possibilities for change. Liberals, libertarians, conservatives, police officers, police unions, and racial minorities have all criticized police quotas. These vastly different constituents have argued that quotas distort police discretion and produce unnecessary police-civilian interactions. This Article supplements these arguments with a novel descriptive, statutory, and jurisprudential account of police quotas in the United States. It offers a framework for under- standing the arguments for and objections to quotas, and proposes some normative strategies that could build on statutory and litigation successes.