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"I had my little bit of chocolate that I wasn't supposed to have," said Sergeant Paul Saldino of the Gretna Police Department during a meeting in January 2014.
"I had a fistful of fucking peanut M&M's," Lieutenant J.R. Rogers responded empathetically.
"Had to buy me some new pants."
The third man in the room was patrolman Paul Pichoff, who sat quietly, waiting for his performance evaluation to begin as his superiors grumbled about their propensity for snacking. He was recording the conversation.
"You got marked dead last," Rogers told Pichoff, referring to his arrest and citation rates. "Make no mistake, Paul, you are given goals… You meet your goals, you will maintain your job here. If you don't meet them, I am going to be forced to submit you for termination."
Rogers was ordering him to make at least one arrest every day. "That shouldn't be too hard to do, Paul," Rogers said. "Somebody has got to go to jail every 12 hours."
Pichoff was on the chopping block if he didn't meet what Rogers described as the department's "quota."
"Everybody has been given the same spiel, the same speech," Rogers continued. "You have got to get on board, man."
Pichoff, an eight-year veteran of the Coast Guard, soon resigned from his full-time employment status as a patrolman because he felt pressure to meet the department's quota. The above dialogue appeared in a transcript of the recording submitted to court in 2017; all other officers involved either declined or didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
Gretna, Louisiana is a stone's throw from New Orleans, just on the other side of the Mississippi River, and has a reputation for being a speed trap with a pestilent police force—a place to avoid driving through whenever possible. A 2016 article from Fusion (now Splinter) found that Gretna had one of the highest arrest rates in the country. A 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights named Gretna as one of the few dozen medium or large municipalities that brings in more than 10 percent of its revenue from court fines and fees, a system the report refers to as "cash register justice."
For many of Gretna's residents, it doesn't come as a shock that the police are allegedly fulfilling a quota; Gretna isn't the only municipality to use its local court like a piggy bank—Ferguson, Missouri is one infamous example. What is surprising is that in a departure from traditional protectionist insularity of American law enforcement, Gretna's police officers are speaking out.
For many of Gretna's residents, it doesn't come as a shock that the police are allegedly fulfilling a quota. And Gretna isn't the only municipality to use its local court like a piggy bank.
Pichoff is one of four former Gretna officers, including a sergeant, who have testified to the existence of an illegal quota system. All four say they left the department because they were either afraid they would be fired for failing to comply with the quota, hesitant to participate on moral grounds, or anxious about the legal ramifications of compliance.
Two of those officers, Daniel Swear and David Heintz, filed federal lawsuits against the Chief of Police and the City of Gretna in the Eastern District Court of Louisiana, claiming that they were wrongfully punished for failing to participate in an illegal quota system.
A third lawsuit, filed as a federal class action on behalf of Gretna residents, is challenging the constitutionality of the Gretna Mayor's Court, an unconventional court run by the Mayor's office. The court processes many of the tickets issued by the Gretna Police, using a complex and unforgiving system of fines and fees.
Together, the lawsuits illuminate a municipal funding scheme, held together by a partnership between a clandestine police policy and a potentially unconstitutional court, that has allowed Gretna to multiply the revenue it collects through fines and fees more than ten times in a 15 year period.
From Suggestion to Obligation
Gretna has had a quota policy since at least 2007, according to former Sergeant David Heintz. But officers who gave testimony say it originally served as a general guideline, not an official obligation that could lead to disciplinary action.
In 2014, things changed. Gretna's automated speeding ticket cameras, which brought millions of dollars for the city each year, were facing constitutional challenges that threatened to stop a cash flow that had filled city coffers for nearly a decade.
In December 2014, Lieutenant Scott Vinson delivered what one officer called the Million Dollar Speech. He told the patrolmen that if the speeding cameras disappeared, the police department would lose $1 million from their annual budget. His task was to make the patrol division financially independent of the cameras, according to former patrolman Swear.
The plan was to fill the million dollar gap with more fines and fees, captured with a new quota—three citations or summons per shift and one arrest for every two days worked, according to Swear's lawsuit. Unlike the old system, this was compulsory. "Initially the quota system was suggested, then it was strongly suggested, and then it was mandatory," said Pichoff in a written testimony. "It was department-wide."
Former Sergeant Heintz testified that he was instructed to write up officers for unsatisfactory performance if they didn't meet the quota. "This directive came straight from the Chief," he said.
It is illegal for a law enforcement agency to implement quotas under Louisiana state law. The City of Gretna, the Gretna Police Department, as well as the officials named in Swear's lawsuit have vehemently denied the existence of a quota system. None of these officials responded to repeated requests for comment.
According to court records, Vinson kept a whiteboard in his office that listed the department's patrolmen to track their individual fulfillment of the quota. Vinson drew red and green checks and stars next to the patrolmen's names to indicate if they had fallen short or met their quotas. Documents submitted to court include photos of the whiteboard.
The importance of fulfilling the quota was made personal for the patrolmen. According to Swear's testimony, officers were told that without ramped up arrests and citations, the city could stop paying for their insurance and contribute less to their retirement fund. Individual failure to comply could lead to termination.
"Don't do this to yourself or your family," Rogers told Pichoff. "They need you, Paul. They need you to do this job."
On December 17, right around the time of the Million Dollar speech, Gretna's officers were required to sign a new departmental policy banning officers from recording other people in the office. Disregarding the new directive, Swear recorded a conversation between himself and Lieutenant Danielle Rodriguez on December 20, 2014, a few days after Vinson's speech.
They spoke about what the speech meant for the department. "It meant, like, you actually have to start enforcing it, you know, which I hate," Rodriguez said. She told Swear that she believed the arrest quota was about ensuring that real police work got done. On the other hand, "the ticket thing is all about the money," she said.
"You have got to do the work you are supposed to," she told Swear. "Even if they don't have dope and they are an asshole or something, you know, hook 'em… You have to look for it. You have to dig for it."
Swear told her that he didn't like to give out unnecessary tickets during Christmas time. "I would rather a kid get a fucking Xbox," he told Rodriguez. "I am not going to compromise my integrity for the sake of a fucking number."
"I don't know what to tell you," Rodriguez said. "I am just enforcing what they want to do. I don't really care. This is what I have to do, and this is my job."
A Legal Oddity
The police quota is only one of the dual pillars propping up Gretna's budgetary scheme. The other is a surreptitious judicial institution called the Gretna Mayor's Court. Mayor's Courts only exist in Louisiana and Ohio, and they are as peculiar as they are legally precarious.
"Mayor's courts are kind of a legal oddity," explains Eric Foley, a staff attorney for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. In December, the center filed a federal class action suit against the city of Gretna and several Gretna officials, including the Mayor and Chief of Police, for "the egregious Due Process and Equal Protection violations that occur daily in the Mayor's Court."
Mayor's courts were established in Louisiana during the infamously racist 1898 Louisiana constitutional convention, which is remembered for disenfranchising Black voters and carving new paths to more easily imprison them. In the obituary for Samuel Lawrason, the Senator who sponsored the law that created Mayor's Courts, The Times Picayune wrote that "he was sent to the constitutional convention, where he distinguished himself in framing the laws which brought about white supremacy in Louisiana."
Mayor's courts are distinguished by a large degree of flexibility that, according to the Louisiana Mayor's Courts Handbook, allows them "to tailor justice to the individual because of their knowledge of the individuals and the community in general." But this informality also means that unlike normal courts, there are few written rules governing how they function. They aren't bound by Louisiana's Code of Criminal Procedure or Code of Evidence. "State law provides little guidance for the day to day functioning of these courts," The Handbook says.
Mayor's Courts are only able to prosecute infractions of local ordinances, which often overlap with state law. The Chief of Police decides whether the case is prosecuted in the Mayor's Court or on the state level. And this is key: the fines and fees from the Mayor's Court are deposited into the City's General Fund, which pays the salaries, medical care, and retirement benefits of police officers, including the Chief of Police, as well as the employees of the Mayor's Court.
One of the most extraordinary characteristics of this court is that the judge and prosecutor are appointed by City Council and serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. "Under this scheme the mayor essentially serves as prosecutor and judge to determine guilt," writes Floyd A. Buras III in one of the only pieces of literature that exists on Louisiana Mayor's Courts.
"Mayor's Courts operate with virtually little to no rules of procedure or oversight," he continues. "This enables the mayor to administer court and render arbitrary decisions with relatively unbridled discretion" and "allows the opportunity for some courts to habitually violate the 14th Amendment."
Adding to the lack of accountability, the Mayor's Court is not a court of record. There is no court reporter and therefore no transcript of the proceedings. "The court doesn't keep any sort of docket, they just keep an accounts tab of what people owe them," says Foley.
In this Wild West style judicial setting, the town of Gretna is extracting as much cash as possible from its citizens. And every year, the court expands.
The value of fines and fees being deposited into Gretna's General Fund grew from $500,000 in the 2001-2002 fiscal year to $5.7 million in 2014-2015. This accounted for over 16 percent of the city's budget in 2014-2015. Foley estimated that roughly $2.4 million came from the Mayor's Court.
To bring in that kind of money, the court needed more defendants.
During the same time period that the Mayor's court was becoming a major funding source for the city, the Gretna Police Department increased annual arrests from 1,313 to 6,194, according to FBI data. Gretna's population, on the other hand, has barely changed, continually hovering around 17,500. And while Black people only make up a third of Gretna's total population, they account for two-thirds of those arrested.
One limitation of the court is that it can't try felony cases, which might partially explain why over this period of intensifying prosecution, arrests for violent felony crimes declined.
Meanwhile, arrests for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses under the FBI categories of "drunkenness," "disorderly conduct," and "all other offenses except traffic" increased from 13 percent of total arrests to 75 percent. In 2001, there were only 26 arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. In 2014, there were 951, according to FBI statistics.
An Assembly Line
Ms. Hammond has been paying the city of Gretna $100 a month for nearly three years in order to pay off the $3,560 in fees she amassed in just four interactions with the Gretna Police. She asked that her first name be omitted for fear of retribution.
When her entanglement with the Mayor's Court began, she was homeless, living in her car with her three children. She lived in nearby Westwego, but her sister lived in Gretna, and on September 17, 2014, she was pulled over by a Gretna police officer and charged with four municipal offenses, including a broken taillight and an expired inspection sticker.
Five days later, Hammond's mother was murdered by her boyfriend, who then tried to kill himself. "We've been through a lot," Hammond says. Over the next four months, Hammond accumulated the $3,500 of debt with a slew of minor ordinance infractions. The majority of the tickets were issued in the first few months after Vinson's Million Dollar Speech.
"That was a hard situation on me. I went to Gretna and told them I couldn't pay. They didn't care."
Most of her violations stemmed from problems with the car she was living in, including three tickets for an expired inspection sticker, two for a cracked windshield, and one for not having a light over her license plate. "Yes my car had problems, but I was a single mother working at McDonald's," Hammond says. "I couldn't afford to fix it."
She also received a ticket because her registration address didn't match the address on her driver's license. At the time, Ms. Hammond had no address. "They did not offer a solution," Hammond says.
Ms. Hammond received a ticket because her registration address didn't match the address on her driver's license. At the time, she had no address. "They did not offer a solution," Hammond says.
The majority of the defendants passing through the Mayor's Court are unable to pay their fines all at once and enter payment plans. With Gretna's high poverty rate, these monthly bills can become perpetual traps.
"One hundred dollars a month doesn't sounds like a lot to people who have it," says Hammond. "But I was having to borrow money to keep up."
The Mayor's Court allows people to bypass prosecution with something called the deferred prosecution program. The program wipes the charges from a defendant's record in exchange for a brief probation and a fee—typically $250 per charge. During arraignment, the prosecutor encourages defendants to opt into the program, telling them that without it, their charges could be reported to the FBI and insurance companies.
"The word 'program' is used pretty loosely here," says Foley. "There's no requirement that you actually do anything other than pay them money… It's really more of an assembly line process."
Hammond opted into the program after the court clerk told her she would only have to pay $900, Hammond says. She paid $300 in regular installments, but then she lost her job and missed a scheduled payment. She was kicked out of the program, lost all the money she'd already paid, and was forced to start all over again. "They make the diversion program sound so wonderful, but they never tell you that if anything happens, you forfeit the money," she says. "I would have never entered the program if I'd known."
Defendants sign a document when they enter the program informing them of the risk of monetary forfeiture. But the court heavily encourages participation in the program, and almost no one is accompanied by a lawyer.
There have been four Supreme Court cases out of Ohio that overturned specific convictions in Mayor's Courts because of 14th amendment violations, but to Foley's knowledge, the McArthur lawsuit is the first to challenge the constitutionality of Mayor's Courts as an institution. The trial is set for the week of December 10, 2018.
Daniel Swear joined the Gretna Police Academy almost straight out of high school. By the time he was 19, he was a member of the department. He would eventually get his Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice by taking online courses from LSU Alexandria.
"I'm more pro police than you can think of," he said in a deposition last August. But after Captain Vinson's Million Dollar Speech, he began questioning whether the department was truly aimed at public safety. "Captain Vinson was the quintessential patrolman, he is the person that we all looked up to," Swear said. "But to hear him come in and tell me that… that was my professional adult version of finding out Santa Claus isn't real."
Although there had been a quota since he began as a patrolman, this was this first time that a superior had made an explicit connection between his performance and specific financial gain.
"I questioned everything I had done since I got out of the police academy… was I out there making a difference the entire time, or was this the method behind the madness from day one?"
He started talking incessantly about the quota system to anyone who would listen, contacting FBI agents and the state Inspector General's office. He even had a vanity license plate put on his car that read "40:2401.1"—a reference to the Louisiana statute prohibiting police quotas.
"Don't do this to yourself or your family," Rogers told Pichoff. "They need you, Paul. They need you to do this job."
In the two months after Vinson's speech, Swear was written up twice for insubordination. "On occasion has had difficulty submitting to supervisory authority when it doesn't match his thoughts or personal beliefs about how things should be done," reads one complaint. It notes that Swear "has unlimited potential that is only inhibited by his own actions."
He was also disciplined for giving a sargeant, who'd recently been passed over for a promotion, a gift of knee pads, vaseline, and ink pen refills–the implication being that the only way he'd be able to get that promotion was to either write up more of his patrolmen for not meeting the quota or perform sexual favors.
On February 2, 2015, according to his testimony, Swear was called into a meeting with Vinson, who said that he'd be fired if he didn't embrace the quota. That same day, he gave his two weeks notice. But on February 9, before his two weeks were up, he was again called into Vinson's office for a closed-door meeting. Swear testified that Vinson suggested he resign before they started an investigation into his defamatory remarks. Swear quit the department immediately.
"It's very hard for a policeman to go against another policeman, period," Swear said. "But this had to do with not only policemen, it had to do with the people we were policing… It was the citizens of Gretna who were potentially affected by it."
Swear now works at the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's office, a 20 minute car ride from Gretna. He says many of the officers in his new department distrust him because they think he's out to get them. "When you're stigmatized as a non-team player, it doesn't matter where you go," he said. "It is going to follow you."