Metro Transit Police held a weekly contest to encourage arrests and other enforcement actions last summer before top commanders learned of the unsanctioned competition and shut it down, the transit agency confirmed Wednesday.
The weekly competition was created by a supervisor in the District 1 police station and involved officers based at Fort Totten, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.
“This was something initiated at the local level, by the supervisor in charge of day-shift officers at District 1 in Fort Totten, without the knowledge or approval of [Metro Transit Police Department] command staff,” Stessel said in a statement. “MTPD does not condone the use of competitions with regard to productivity.”
Metro did not identify the supervisor and would not say if any participants were disciplined. Stessel said “appropriate corrective action was taken immediately.”
The competition lasted about a month starting in mid-July, during which time Metro said one officer received a prize: A $20 movie gift card. Stessel said it was purchased with the supervisor’s personal funds.
The bounty system came to light in the days after a video was posted on social media showing Metro Transit Police arresting a 13-year-old boy at the Shaw-Howard University Metro station. The handcuffing and arrest of the boy ignited criticism of excessive force by officers and renewed complaints about unnecessary detainment and questioning of black customers in the system. Some in the community have suspected Transit Police are under pressure to make arrests or meet a quota, a charge Metro has repeatedly denied.
Allegations of selective enforcement and unnecessary force prompted two D.C. Council members to hold a hearing late last year on Metro Transit Police practices regarding communities of color.
A spokeswoman for one of the council members, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), said he plans to question police about the competition at a performance oversight hearing next week.
“This shouldn’t ever happen and I hope we learn through oversight this is an isolated incident,” council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said. “Policing isn’t a game. What happens in an interaction between a police officer and a resident can be life-altering and the officer’s only focus should be the public’s safety.”
The Washington Post learned of the competition this week while reviewing public records.
An anonymous person complaining about Transit Police’s enforcement in black communities sent White and Allen on Nov. 17 an image of an internal police email promoting the weekly contest. It dubbed the challenge a “friendly competition,” included a scoring sheet and had an image of a vitamin bottle with the words “ONE A DAY” along with pills labeled as “arrest,” “citations” and other enforcement actions.
Upon learning of the email, White and Allen sent Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. a letter on Nov. 25 asking him whether the competition was real and saying that such a challenge “encourages arrests, incentivizes confrontation between officers and the community, and trivializes the serious impact arrests have on members of the public.”
The council members’ offices said Pavlik did not respond. On Wednesday, after The Post began looking into the competition, White’s office said Metro verbally told the council member the practice had been stopped.
“Effective immediately, your Leadership will be recognizing and incentivizing your efforts by highlighting a WEEKLY WINNER whose combined efforts throughout the week surpass their peers,” the competition’s rules stated. “The 1st WEEKLY WINNER will be notified and announced this Sunday, July 21st.”
Stessel said the intent of the challenge was to “encourage more community engagement through, among other things, distribution of crime prevention fliers, high-visibility patrols, etc.” But the game’s instructions did not include either of those actions as ways to score points.
According to the flier viewed by The Washington Post, the competition awarded 20 points for an arrest; one point for 10 tickets; four points for a citation; a point for every three bus contact sheets turned in; two points for filling out contact cards; three points for each report filed; and one point for work during “pop-up events.”
The instructions included photos of two officers dubbed “Weekly Winners” and opened and closed with a salutation made famous by the “Hunger Games,” a fictional book and movie series about citizens being forced into a kill-or-be-killed survival competition.
“Good Luck All,” it said. “May the odds be forever in your favor.”
The anonymous whistleblower included a note stating that he challenged Pavlik’s statement to council members about the department not having an arrest quota system.
“We are constantly counseled daily about necessary paperwork, arrests, and citations that need to be brought in to be considered a productive officer,” the note said, adding that the competition led officers “to unnecessarily stop and harass citizens just to refrain from getting in any trouble from Leadership/Management.”
Stessel said police do include minimum performance standards as part of each employee’s annual review. “However, the standards are set so low as to not influence officers’ decision-making process,” he said. “Day-work officers, for example, have a minimum performance standard of six arrests over the course of a calendar year.”
Metro Transit Police’s arrest of the 13-year-old boy on Feb. 6 became the latest flash point in the racially charged controversy that turned into a contentious public debate last year when the D.C. Council decriminalized fare evasion in the city, going against the wishes of Metro and Virginia and Maryland, which along with the District provide Metro funding.
In the incident last week, police on a train saw what appeared to be fighting between two boys on a station platform. The officers got off the train to investigate; the boys jumped on the train. When the officers caught up with them, the boys said they were friends and just playing around.
But the situation took a turn for the worse when the 13-year-old refused to provide an officer with his name and the phone number of a parent. At some point, the officer alleged, the boy pushed him. The boy was then taken down to the ground and handcuffed. A witness who recorded part of the confrontation said the officers used excessive force.
The boy, who complained of pain to his hands and back, was sent in an ambulance to Children’s National Hospital. While there, police said, he resisted orders and kicked an officer in the chest while others tried to restrain him. He was treated before spending the night in the District’s juvenile processing center.
Metro opened an administrative review of the arrest, which Stessel said was ongoing and included interviews of witnesses and review of video footage. The officers involved remain on “full duty status, based on available information at this stage,” Stessel said.