Earlier this year, some SLO police officers were rewarded with a pizza party for making DUI arrests on one night in February. Some community members called it an illegal quota, but police called it a “challenge.”
Interdepartmental emails revealed that the party was a reward for a “verbal challenge” issued by a SLO police sergeant to officers, and department officials insist the incident doesn’t meet the legal definition of a quota system, which is illegal under California law.
The pizza party was first mentioned in an end-of-shift email written by Sgt. John Villanti Feb. 14. In the email, Villanti congratulated officers for their work on the night of Feb. 13, which included five DUI arrests. He wrote that the arrests fulfilled a “challenge” set by another officer, Sgt. Sean Gillham.
“He offered to provide a pizza party if the watch arrested five DUIs in a night,” Villanti wrote. “With Sgt. Villanti substituting for Gillham this was achieved and we are all looking forward to the pizza party which hopefully is served with dessert, too ☺!!!”
In a Feb. 17 email obtained by New Times via a public records request, Gillham divulged more details of the incident to department officials, including former SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell. In the email, Gillham described the incident as a “verbal challenge” he gave to his night watch officer during a briefing.
“I never shared this challenge electronically,” Gillham wrote.
Villanti’s Feb. 14 email was eventually leaked to the press, prompting questions from the media and public about the nature of the challenge and whether it constituted a quota system within the department. According the California vehicle code, agencies cannot institute any policy that requires officers or parking enforcement employees to meet an arrest or citation quota. They’re also barred from using the number of arrests or citations as the sole criteria for promotion, demotion, or termination.
In an email response to questions from New Times, interim Police Chief Capt. Chris Staley said the challenge wasn’t part of the department’s policy, and also didn’t meet the legal definition of a quota system. Capt. Keith Storton echoed Staley’s remarks, characterizing the challenge as an instance of a supervisor trying to motivate his officers.
“The incident of offering pizza for the arrest of five DUIs during a shift was a one-time situation where a supervisor used what he believed to be a motivating tool to encourage and engage officers in the identification of DUI drivers, one of the city of San Luis Obispo’s most prolific types of crimes, in a well-intended nature,” Storton wrote in an email to New Times.
According to Storton, the matter was reviewed, and no violation of department policies was found. He also said that no action was taken against any department employees as a result of the review.
New Times sent questions to Gillham directly. Storton said Gillham was aware of his response to New Times’ questions and “agreed with the intent” of his answers.
According to Staley, the challenge was a singular event.
“The department is not aware of any other challenges for DUIs or other violations before or after this time frame,” he wrote in an email to New Times.
Even after the night of Feb. 13, some of the department’s leadership remained concerned with the number of DUI arrests. New Times obtained an email from Lt. Jeffery Smith to Gillham and others March 19, where he raised concerns over a lack of DUI enforcement based on statistics for the month of February. In the email, Smith notes that out of 12 officers, only four had DUI arrests.
“Additionally half the officers working nights are not even averaging one citation per shift,” he wrote. “Both January and February numbers are somewhat disappointing.”
Storton said that supervisors and managers are expected to look at workloads and analyze performance, but added that the department doesn’t set standards for numbers of arrests or citations.
“We know that [on] end of week nights stretching from Thursday to Saturday there is a significant increase of DUI drivers on the roadway,” Storton wrote. “Our purpose is to remove those drivers from the roadway. This effort helps to keep our community safe and potentially save lives. A supervisor communicating these expectations to employees to enhance safety is welcomed, appreciated, and expected.”
Katherine Schwinghammer, a local DUI defense attorney, said that the department shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what happened in Feburary.
“What’s worrying maybe the most, to me, is that SLOPD management doesn’t see this as problem,” she said.
While Schwinghammer agreed the challenge wasn’t a clear-cut illegal quota policy as defined by the law, she said it might have a similar impact; causing officers to make questionable DUI stops and arrests in order to satisfy their superiors.
“Police officers are human beings; they want to please their supervisors, and they don’t want to let their team down,” she said. “It could be an incentive for them to arrest people in borderline situations.”
With the knowledge of the challenge now public, Schwinghammer said she wouldn’t be surprised to see defense attorneys bringing up the issue in SLO courtrooms during DUI trials.
“I think we will see it in a lot of cases where it was an ambiguous arrest,” she said. “They will wonder, ‘Is there really a good case against me?’”
While the impact ripples through the courts, the police will continue making DUI arrests, which have been growing in recent years. According to the department, SLOPD made 445 DUI arrests in 2014, up from 396 in 2013. SLOPD officers have already made more than 111 DUI arrests in the first four months of 2015.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @CWMcGuinness.