Former officers with the Sterlington Police Department say Police Chief Barry Bonner required them to meet an illegal ticket quota, not simply as a motivational tool but as a condition of their employment.
These officers told The Ouachita Citizen that any noncompliance with Bonner’s ticket quotas resulted in threats that there would not be enough money to cover pay raises or that they would be ineligible for overtime work.
During their job interviews with Bonner, officers said they were instructed to meet the ticket quota —what Bonner has defended as revenue-raising “goals” — or else there would not be enough money to pay for their positions.
In Louisiana, state law forbids police departments from instructing, suggesting or implying that law enforcement officers are required or expected to issue a specified number of traffic citations.
Bonner’s use of a ticket quota was first uncovered by The Ouachita Citizen in a February 2017 news report in which Bonner admitted to implementing an illegal ticket quota. Bonner communicated his expectations to officers face-to-face, through text messages and through memos that the department referred to as “Do the Math” sheets.
“Yes, I give quotas, but they are goals,” Bonner told The Ouachita Citizen in a Jan. 24, 2017 interview. “The law says quotas cannot be used for discipline, termination or evaluation. But they can be used for goals.”
Auditors disagreed. In October 2017, auditors reviewed this newspaper’s reporting and found that Bonner’s practice of requiring two to three tickets each shift ran afoul of state law, regardless of whether he described it as a “quota” or as a “goal.”
After his ticket quota system resulted in a finding in an audit of the town of Sterlington’s finances, Bonner diminished the extent of his practice with a lengthy written response to the finding. He described his published comments about holding police officers “accountable” as a “poor choice of words.”
“If an officer fails to write citations on a regular basis this information is used only as a barometer for his/her work ethic and would be addressed as such,” Bonner wrote in his October 2017 written response.
The former Sterlington police officers who spoke to The Ouachita Citizen said they believed Bonner’s written response was dishonest and intentionally misleading. One officer called the response perjury.
The practice of requiring ticket quotas was “wrong,” Bonner has said, but the law against it had “no teeth” or was rarely enforced. As Sterlington’s chief of police, Bonner is an elected official and not appointed by the mayor or Sterlington Town Council.
In December 2017, Fourth Judicial District Attorney Steve Tew told The Ouachita Citizen his office was looking into Bonner’s use of an illegal ticket quota among other questionable practices by town officials. The matter could go to a grand jury, Tew said.
‘I have a ticket quota’
For several years, Sterlington has had difficulty keeping officers at the department for long periods of time. That difficulty has been the subject of many laments by Bonner and Sterlington Town Council members during council meetings. Since the department is small and frequently has fewer than 10 officers, it is commonly viewed by officers as a training ground or stepping stone in their careers, according to Bonner’s descriptions in the past.
In his written response to the October 2017 audit, Bonner defended his ticket quota by claiming the revenues raised through traffic citations were meant to hire more officers or buy equipment for the department.
Bonner described the ticket quota as a group effort to raise revenues for the town of Sterlington, which depends on traffic ticket fines as its second largest source of revenues behind sales taxes. The total of traffic ticket fines projected for Sterlington coffers each year has ranged from $260,000 to $450,000.
“The purpose of the (“Do the Math”) memos were not only to show the officers the math on how to get to our goals, but was also my effort in keeping them in the loop as to what we have to do as a department to allow us to hire additional personnel and purchase much needed equipment,” Bonner wrote.
In spite of what he had told officers in a “Do the Math” sheet, Bonner’s description diminished the effect of the ticket quota system on each officer.
Bonner’s ticket quota requirement was a key part of gaining employment at the department, former officers said. The officers’ claim that Bonner required 2.5 tickets on each 12-hour shift was consistent with Bonner’s use of decimal fractions on “Do the Math” sheets obtained by The Ouachita Citizen. For example, in a “Do the Math” memo written July 17, 2014, Bonner reminded officers they should have issued 2.29 tickets during each shift.
Melvin Cooper, who worked at the department in 2016 before he was injured while on-duty, said Bonner could not claim to have simply misspoke as he did in his written response.
“There was a ticket quota,” Cooper said. “I know because when I had my interview, he came in right off the bat and said, ‘I have a ticket quota.’”
Cooper had graduated from the police academy in late 2015 and was unfamiliar with state law forbidding ticket quotas. Cooper said the first time he heard “ticket quota” was while working in another jurisdiction where writing two tickets per shift was encouraged, though his supervising officer at the time went to great lengths to explain why the practice was not an illegal “ticket quota.”
“Bonner said it was a minimum of two tickets,” Cooper said. “That goes for every officer here, he told me. He explained it was a self-funding department. The only way they could fund my position was through the tickets I wrote.”
The greater the traffic violation or crime, the heavier the traffic fine, Cooper said.
“Bonner told us that the town didn’t want us writing window tickets or seat belt tickets,” Cooper said. “It’s got to be good tickets, like for speeding or marijuana. That’s what they really liked. If there were three or four people in the car and some marijuana, then that’s three or four marijuana tickets.”
Mike Hodges, who also worked at the department until he also was injured in the same incident as Cooper, described Bonner’s ticket quota system as arbitrary.
“Whether it’s a quota or not, I don’t believe in writing a ticket just because,” said Hodges, who has some 21 years of experience in law enforcement. “There was not even an understood quota at other places. Nothing even under the table. Not like at Sterlington.”
Leonard Brantley, who worked at the department for nearly three years, said he also was instructed that two and a half to three tickets would be expected on each 12-hour shift.
“When we were hired, he told us that we did have the ticket deal for revenues and that you would be required to write two and a half tickets per shift,” Brantley said. “He did the math on his phone and showed it to us. That’s what he did to me.”
Bonner’s defense of the ticket quota system as a means of raising revenue for the department did not add up, according to Brantley.
“You think Monroe police can run a department simply on tickets? They can’t. Trust me, I know. I worked there,” Brantley said. “I wasn’t a big ticket writer. You write them when the situation calls for it, but I went out on the streets to look for drugs and DWIs. That’s what police work is.”
Rick Cole, who worked at the department for two years as a reserve police officer, said Bonner made it clear Cole was expected to write traffic citations.
“Whenever he hires you, he lets you know that part of the hiring process is the writing of tickets,” Cole said. “He told me point blank he wanted to see me and all officers to average 2.5 tickets per shift. That was his quota.”
Bonner’s use of a ticket quota system was widely known, according to Cole.
“Everybody knew about it,” Cole said. “He wrote it in a letter. Whenever you didn’t write tickets, he would get mad. There are some guys who left but won’t come forward because Bonner told them he would call the guy’s sheriff.”
Concerning Bonner’s written response to the October 2017 audit, Cole said, “He perjured himself.”
In a “Do the Math” memo distributed ahead of 2015, Bonner admitted the ticket quota system was a condition of employment.
“Each and every officer working for the Sterlington Police department was thoroughly briefed as to what was expected of them regarding citations when they were in the hiring process,” wrote Bonner, in bold font. “The fact you accepted the job indicates you understood and agreed with what was described as part of your daily duties.”
‘You will be held accountable’
In a “Do the Math” memo for the 2013 year, during which he required officers to write 500 total citations, Bonner claimed each officer would be held accountable for meeting that quota.
“So the moral of this story is your specific goal is 3 citations per shift,” Bonner wrote in the memo. “Do not be the grasshopper! Diligently work towards your goal and never lose sight of it. You will be held accountable.”
Later, in response to the October 2017 audit finding, Bonner claimed his statement about holding officers accountable for meeting the traffic citation was simply a “poor choice of words.”
“I would like to apologize for my poor choice of words in one particular memo. I made mention to the fact that each officer ‘will be held accountable,’ ” Bonner wrote in his October 2017 written response. “What I was referring to is the fact that each of us are responsible for doing our part in performing our assigned duties and enforcing the traffic laws within our jurisdiction.”
That response did not track with Bonner’s previous statements, memos or his supervision of police officers, according to former Sterlington police.
“We always had a meeting at the beginning of the year where he would go over the memo outlining our goals and pass it out,” Brantley said. “He would say this is the goal you have to meet. This is your requirements, basically. One time he required us to sign it and turn it back in. I’m under the assumption that you’ve made me sign this because it’s required for me to keep working here. I feel like I had no option but to sign it.”
In past interviews with The Ouachita Citizen and in his October 2017 written response, Bonner said no officers were written up or terminated for not meeting their ticket quotas.
“Since my election in 2005, there has never been an officer disciplined, promoted, demoted, or fired for not writing citations,” Bonner wrote in his October 2017 written response.
That was only partly true, according to Cooper.
“He said he never punished or fired anybody,” Cooper said. “Well, yeah. Because he couldn’t use that reason, but he could find other reasons. He would tell us, ‘I can’t fire you for not writing tickets. If you don’t write the tickets, I can’t bring you before the Town Council and fire you for that reason, but I’ll find some other reason to fire you and they’ll go along with it.’”
Cole said Bonner was insistent that traffic citations were required if the officers wanted to receive a pay raise or get new gear and equipment.
Hodges showed The Ouachita Citizen a text message conversation with Bonner about his failure to meet the ticket quota. In the text message conversation, Bonner indicated Hodges would not be kept on as an employee beyond his probationary period unless he met the ticket quota.
The text message conversation, which was confirmed by The Ouachita Citizen’s review of phone numbers for Hodges and Bonner, was dated Thursday, June 23 at 10:56 a.m.
Bonner: “Ok Mike, you have written three citations since the last time I spoke with you on June 9th. You should have written at least 12 if you were doing the minimum of two per shift. This will be the last time I speak with you about this on a text. Next time will be in my office. Remember what I said about being self governable, if (you’re) not this place will eat your lunch and you will not make it past your probationary period. If this place is not for you let me know ASAP.”
Hodges: “Sorry (Chief) I’ll write more tickets so far the majority of people I stopped were local I’ll write the citations and let you sort them out I enjoy working for you and I would like to stay w you for a long time I’m very professional and know what I’m doing and I have respect for you and the department.”
Bonner: “I know brother, I cannot ask for a better or more professional person than you. You are going to have a different partner pretty soon and hopefully this will help motivate you some. As far as writing Town’s folks, use the three reason rule. Stopping town (residents) is a very rare event. 90% of all stops are on folks out of our jurisdiction. You must be just having a very rare run. Need to buy a lottery ticket!”
No L.A.C.E. for you
Though Sterlington had a small department, one of the perks of the job was participation in the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s L.A.C.E. program — a program for off-duty officers who are paid overtime for issuing traffic tickets or other law enforcement tasks.
Though the use of L.A.C.E. (Local Agency Compensated Enforcement) at Sterlington was a reward, some officers said eligibility to work the program also was a form of punishment, according to Cole, who objected to Bonner’s claim that a quota was only illegal if officers were disciplined or terminated.
“The only benefit to working there was working the L.A.C.E. program to earn some extra money,” Cooper said. “It was told to us that if we didn’t get our numbers, they would take L.A.C.E. away.”
“If we weren’t caught up on our tickets, we couldn’t work L.A.C.E.,” Brantley said. “I recall him saying that to a number of us. He did that to Mike (Hodges).”
“That’s a form of punishment, I think,” Brantley added.
One of Bonner’s communications to officers characterized participation in L.A.C.E. as a reward for the officers who met their quotas.
“Furthermore, LACE will only be allowed to be worked by officers who are up to date with their citation numbers,” Bonner wrote. “These numbers are easy to calculate... Please take the time to read this as many times as it takes to understand this is not a bitch out memo but rather a memo of pure business and numbers.”