DeKalb still denies police ‘quota’ system after settling suit for $150K

A frame capture from a store video shows DeKalb County Police Officer Demetrius Kendrick, right, and another officer with Alphonso Eleby, seated, seconds before Kendrick claimed that he found loose marijuana on the ground near Eleby.

A frame capture from a store video shows DeKalb County Police Officer Demetrius Kendrick, right, and another officer with Alphonso Eleby, seated, seconds before Kendrick claimed that he found loose marijuana on the ground near Eleby.

The ex-cops spoke of “numbers” and regular pressure to keep them up. They told of overzealous ticket writing and small-time marijuana arrests, an easy way to boost stats and raise fine money for the county. One resigned officer recalled an urge to apologize and explain to an elderly woman why he couldn’t just give her a warning.

But the county denies the DeKalb County Police Department had — or has ever had — a “quota system” several former officers described in sworn affidavits. And the county has maintained that denial even after county commissioners agreed to pay $149,500 to settle a federal lawsuit, which alleged that the pressure to meet that quota led an officer to plant marijuana on a young man.

Two years after the judge in the case found that the affidavits filed in support of the lawsuit showed evidence of quotas, county officials told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week DeKalb agreed to the 2017 settlement, which hasn’t previously been reported, only to avoid the “potential for lengthy and costly litigation.”

“The DeKalb County Police Department does not have any policies or procedures for benchmarks or quotas for police officers,” the county said in an emailed statement issued by spokesman Quinn Hudson. “All police officers are reviewed annually based on customer service, training, work quality, attendance, adherence to regulations, teamwork and cooperation.”

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Top county and police officials also pointed out in the statement that agency policy prohibits the use of a quota system on traffic tickets. The officials didn’t want to be interviewed on the settlement.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by Alphonso Eleby in 2014.

Eleby had been charged during a 2012 encounter with officer Demetrius Kendrick at a gas station. Eleby was there with two friends, who admitted to police they had marijuana after Kendrick said he smelled it while walking by them. Eleby denied he had any, but Kendrick said he saw Eleby throw some pot in the grass and charged him.

DeKalb police’s internal investigators began looking into Eleby’s claims that the drugs were planted after the county solicitor’s office notified the unit of Eleby’s allegations and a security camera video that seemed to back up his claim.

Eleby’s charges were later dropped because the evidence (the pot) couldn’t be located in an evidence room in time for trial, police records show. Kendrick was disciplined for inaccuracies in his police report and was himself charged with violating the oath of office by allegedly planting the drug on Eleby. The officer was later acquitted and petitioned to get his job back. He still works for DeKalb police.

Eleby’s attorney, Mark Bullman, said Eleby chose to settle the lawsuit because he was ready to be done with the situation, which had become a years-long ordeal.

U.S. District Judge Leigh May found in 2016 that the DeKalb police department appeared to have a “custom,” if not a written policy, of quotas for tickets and arrests and that compliance was “strongly encouraged.” Although the judge wanted a jury to have the final say on whether the agency indeed had a quota system, the settlement means the case won’t go before a jury.

“While we spent a very long time achieving what we did, in uncovering the long-standing pattern of the quota system, my client did not want to litigate further,” Bullman told the AJC, adding that he and Eleby both hope change can still come to the police department.

Officers said in court filings they were required to write two traffic citations and make one arrest per shift, or be punished by not getting coveted assignments or promotions. One former cop said there was a saying in the department in the 2000s: “Two tickets a day keep the sergeants away. Five a day keep the lieutenants at bay.”

Former DeKalb detective Jamie Payton, who exposed corruption in the county watershed department before leaving the police agency in 2013, said, as she sees it, paying nearly $150,000 is tantamount to admitting the alleged harmful quota system existed. "Plain and simple," Payton said.

“There wouldn’t be costly legal battles to avoid in this situation if there wasn’t a stack of hard evidence against them,” she added. Payton was one of the former officers who wrote an affidavit in Eleby’s suit.

County and police officials have said they keep track of what officers are doing but only to make sure they’re working instead of riding the clock. In a well-populated — and, in some pockets, high-crime — place like DeKalb, an officer is expected to stay busy answering calls, seeing traffic violations and making arrests.

DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police President Jeff Wiggs, whose job it is to stick up for cops in the county, said he simply hasn’t seen anything like a quota system in the agency, where he worked about three decades before retiring a few years ago. He also has heard no complaints from officers about it.

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“I’ve never had an officer tell me, I’m being harassed to produce a certain amount of tickets and arrests a day,” he said. “Obviously officers are expected to work. They’re being paid to work.”

Former officer Zachary J. Chisholm, who was there about four years until resigning in 2012, said he thought some cops were too worried to speak up about the situation. “A lot of officers (had) in the back of their head (that) they’re going to do whatever it takes to keep their job,” Chisholm, one of the ex-cops who wrote an affidavit for the suit, told The AJC this week.

Wiggs said if an officer felt such pressure, they might have misunderstood their supervisor.

But the only reason Eleby’s attorney started looking into whether there were quotas was the fact that the pressure of numbers came up when the police department’s own investigators questioned Kendrick about what happened with Eleby.

The security camera footage from the store didn’t show that Eleby threw pot, as Kendrick suggested, according to audio of an interview of Kendrick obtained by The AJC.

“I don’t believe you saw him do that,” one of the DeKalb investigators told Kendrick.

A second detective asked Kendrick whether he felt pressure to make arrests to stay on the special Neighborhood Enforcement Team.

“I know if you don’t make enough arrests or generate enough tickets … you don’t get on the NET team very long,” the investigator said. “So did you feel enough stress on you to make an arrest here?”

“No,” Kendrick said.