From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The state of Louisiana has set arrest “targets” for the New Orleans Police Department as part of a federally funded grant program meant to boost traffic enforcement — possibly violating laws against quotas, according to lawyers who spoke to The Lens. Similar grants have gone to dozens of law enforcement agencies throughout the state, though it was not clear on Monday how many contain funding tied to the specific arrest target in the grant. 

Louisiana law prohibits law enforcement agencies in the state from implementing “arrest quotas,” and it is illegal for any state agency to offer “a financial reward or other benefit to a law enforcement officer which is determined by or based on the number of citations issued.”

But a pass-through federal grant issued by the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission to pay for overtime traffic enforcement officers, and issued to over 40 law enforcement agencies throughout the state — including the New Orleans Police Department — suggests as a ratio of arrests per overtime hour worked as part of the contracts “performance targets.”

Under impaired driving “performance targets,” a grant agreement for the NOPD obtained by The Lens suggests that the agencies “achieve a 1:8 ratio of impaired driving arrests (an average of one impaired driving arrest per 8 hours of saturation patrol worked.)”

Then, there is a disclaimer: 

“The Louisiana Highway Safety Commission is not declaring the 1:8 ratio as a quota,” the grant reads. “Agencies will be considered to be in compliance with the LHSC performance expectations as long as they complete enforcement activity efforts with some measure of success.”

But some lawyers say that despite the attempt to walk it back, the ratio in the LHSC grant still seems to function as a quota — and that violates state law. 

“This contract appears to tie state (LHSC) funding to arrest quotas as a metric of performance, which is specifically forbidden,” said Bruce Hamilton, a lawyer with the ACLU of Louisiana, in a statement.  “Even though the contract includes language claiming the required ‘ratio’ … is not a quota, it appears to operate as such in direct contravention of state law.”

In a Sunday email, Lisa Freeman, director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, disputed that reading. She said that the grant does not contain a quota, and the performance targets are meant to advance the public safety goals of the funding.

“The language in LHSC’s law enforcement contracts could not be more unequivocal and should not be interpreted beyond the unambiguous wording contained in the contracts,” she wrote.

Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor and executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission — a generally pro-law enforcement watchdog group — said that the language in the grant is ambiguous at best. 

“In one sentence, they’re talking about a certain number, or a certain ratio, of impaired [driving] arrests, or tickets,” Goyeneche said. “And in the next sentence, they say, ‘But that’s not a quota.’ So if they have to say that language they’re using in one sentence is not a quota, obviously it is a recognition that it can be interpreted as being a quota.”

The New Orleans Police Department receives nearly $400,000 in grant funding from LHSC to conduct overtime traffic safety enforcement — which comes from the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. About $150,000 of that money from NOPD goes to “impaired driving enforcement.” 

“Research shows the four riskiest behaviors are speeding, impaired driving, distracted driving, and failing to wear seat belts. NHTSA works with state and local agencies, safety stakeholders, and many others to address these behaviors,” a spokesperson for the NHTSA wrote in a Tuesday morning email. “NHTSA does not require or encourage states to use arrest, citation, and contact quotas, or ratios. As mandated by Congress, states use a performance measure framework agreed to by NHTSA and the Governors Highway Safety Association.”

LHSC gave out at least 40 other grants to law enforcement agencies throughout the state, according to an online database of state contracts. The agency confirmed that the language in all the grants was the same, but would not say how many of those grants specifically included “impaired driving enforcement” funding, which sets up the arrest target. 

A number of the other portions of the grant agreement suggest “contact” ratios rather than arrests. For speeding enforcement, the document says that the agency is “expected” to achieve a ratio of “two contacts per hour of enforcement worked.” The same is true for “non motorized” enforcement. The same disclaimer appears after each of the ratios— that the grant is “not declaring” that the ratio “represents a quota.”

In addition to state law, New Orleans Police Department policy also prohibits arrest quotas. In response to questions about the grant, a spokesperson for the department said that it does not “operate on a quota system and does not believe the LHSC grant in question dictates a quota system.”  

“While the grant offers proposed performance goals based on its financial assistance, they are just that – proposed goals,” the spokesperson wrote. “NOPD does not believe this grant at any point mandates that specific requirements or expectations be met in order to receive funding. Likewise, NOPD does not set any specific requirements or expectations for enforcement utilizing the grant funding.”

‘What does that mean?’

In at least one instance in recent years, however, a law enforcement agency has responded to similar targets by instructing officers to make a certain number of arrests and citations. In 2019, WBRZ reported that after receiving a grant under the same program the Gonzales police department had issued a directive to officers that they must write two seatbelt citations per hour, and make a DWI arrest every six hours.

In a statement to the news station at the time, the Gonzales police chief said that the department was “contractually obligated” to follow grant guidelines “in order to attain the funding necessary to keep our streets safe.” 

But he also said that it wasn’t a quota.

“I understand how an internal memo, with neither context nor contact information provided within the grant, can seem as though we are requesting quotas,” he told WBRZ, “but that is not the case. We are simply following the direction of the grant as laid out directly to us.”

The language in the grant appears to have been updated to include the disclaimer that the ratio should not be considered a quota. A portion of the grant issued in 2016 and obtained by The Lens does not include that language, and suggests a ratio of one arrest every six hours. 

Freeman, with LHSC, did not respond to specific questions from The Lens about when the language changed or if the disclaimer regarding the quota was added in as a response to the revelations about the Gonzales Police Department memo. 

“Throughout LHSC’s law enforcement contracts, LHSC makes abundantly clear that there is no mandatory number of citations or arrests linked to funding,” Freeman wrote. “Specifically, on multiple instances throughout the contract terms, it is expressly stated that agencies are considered to be in compliance with LHSC performance expectations, as long as agencies demonstrate some completion of enforcement activities.”

But Goyeneche said that even with the disclaimer, without more specific requirements from agencies, the suggestion that they should complete “enforcement activities with some measure of success” is too ambiguous.

“What does that mean?” Goyeneche said. “I think that this is going to continue to be phraseology that is going to trigger ‘Is this a quota?’ and ‘Is it a violation of Louisiana law?’ until they define what are some of the other activities that will meet their measures of success.” 

Freeman, however, said that the performance metrics are “not requirements” and that funding under the program has never been withheld from agencies “relative to performance expectations.”  The grant also stipulates that it “in no way requires or encourages the law enforcement agency to offer any reward or other benefit to any law enforcement officer based on the number of citations issued.” 

“Performance parameters are not requirements; they represent expectations which ensure that law enforcement agencies and their officers demonstrate engagement in evidence-based countermeasures that reduce risky driving behaviors, which include impaired driving.  For this reason, federal grant authorization for highway safety funding requires data-driven law enforcement measures, such as high visibility enforcement.” 

The grant agreement requires that enforcement agencies use “evidence-based enforcement of the grant,” including deploying officers based on analysis of “crashes, crash fatalities and injuries.” But Goyeneche said that there should be some recognition of public safety metrics in the performance expectations portion of the grant, beyond the arrest and contact ratios. 

“If the objective of these grants is to improve highway safety, by reducing city or state traffic violations, reducing accidents, and reducing injuries and fatalities, then I think that those are areas that should be delineated and expressly stated as being factors that will be taken into consideration to determine the success of the deployment of these of these officers working these traffic details,” Goyeneche said.

‘Incredibly problematic’

Hamilton at the ACLU called arrest quotas in general “incredibly problematic.” 

“For one thing, they send the message that policing is more about making money than public safety,” he said, noting that quotas can “encourage discriminatory treatment of motorists” and “lead to illegal arrests, criminal summonses, and ruined lives.”

“These policies undermine the legitimate purpose of police work and will only contribute to the mass incarceration epidemic our state is already suffering.”

But Freeman said the grants were “all about — and only about — public safety,” and the suggested ratios were part of encouraging “high visibility enforcement” that is shown to reduce accidents and fatalities. 

“High motor vehicle crash volumes translate into high traffic-related injury and death rates,” she wrote. “To address that, highway safety offices contract with law enforcement officials to reduce unsafe driving behaviors by identifying violators and taking appropriate action.  Years of data and research have demonstrated that high visibility enforcement is a significant proven countermeasure and deterrent to risky driving behaviors, which include impaired driving.”

This story was updated to include a statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...