While working in a coffee shop recently, I overheard two men from the Austin Police discussing productivity numbers. It seems the Austin Police Department uses quotas. If so, that could be bad news.
Usually I’m writing or reading when I’m in a coffee shop, and all the conversations around me are just white noise. However, the other day I was working on an image. I had taken a photo of a picture on a T-shirt behind glass, and to get rid of the glare, I was going to edit it a little in Paint. It ended up being a several-day coloring project at 800% enlargement. Very relaxing. But I digress.
Since my work didn’t require a big chunk of my brain, and I was sitting in a space off the main area, three feet away from the only other little table there, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation two men were having.
By the time it began to register that this was a job evaluation talk, they had been talking for a few minutes. I was shocked that anyone would conduct job evaluation talks in a coffee shop instead of in a more private setting, especially if the talk was not all sweetness and light. I didn’t look even remotely in the direction of the men, because I really felt for the employee; this was so inappropriate.
The HR guy was talking about a spreadsheet that showed that the employee’s productivity had been way down (Let’s call him E for short). His numbers should be in the 600s (let’s say, because I don’t remember) and they were only in the 300s. This forced E to go on the defense and ask if they had looked at John’s numbers (name changed), because he knew he had hit higher numbers than John. HR said he didn’t know about John’s numbers, but that this is what the spreadsheet said about him. E wanted to know if they were using the same method to evaluate everyone, and it went back and forth like that for a while.
I thought to myself how much the cutthroat American business world sucks; when you get evaluated based on spreadsheet numbers about your productivity and you have to compete with your colleagues. E and HR were talking about the methodology behind the numbers; E thought that every contact counted, so that’s where the misunderstanding was. I suspected he was a car salesman or something. HR guy was explaining that just talking to someone didn’t count, that that wasn’t productive, and E, also because he was self-aware enough to see that he was being defensive and that that was not a good look, said that that definitely cleared things up, and now that he knew that, he could safely promise his numbers would go up. I wondered how he could be so sure.
When they got up and walked off, I finally looked up; to my surprise they were Austin police!
I understand that Human Resources needs some system to make sure the officers aren’t just napping behind the donut shop all day, but there must be a better way. Some kind of device that shows how often the patrol car is in motion, maybe? I’m aware that I’m still assuming a lot, because they never said it in so many words, but I do suspect that those numbers are traffic tickets, fines, arrests — interactions with the public that leave a paper trail that’s translatable into numbers on a spreadsheet.
Shaun King wrote a series of articles about arrest quotas in the Bronx, NYC, and the pressure it puts on the police. The officers do indeed increase their arrests — they get them in the poorest neighborhoods, arresting teenagers for spitting on the sidewalk. The most vulnerable citizens, lacking the resources to fight the system and make a stink, end up with a criminal record for absolutely nothing. The officers themselves eventually blew the whistle. (There’s more to it than just quotas; there’s a deal with private prisons as well — it’s ugly.)
The point is that if the Austin Police Department uses quotas, officers are forced to do what they have to to meet them. I can imagine them being just the slightest bit nasty, so citizens they’re interacting with get annoyed, and they can then arrest them for disrespecting an officer. Or they could harass the homeless. Or they could stop guys in beat-up cars in East Austin who change lanes without using their blinkers. They can give a fine, and from then on they can arrest them on a regular basis for outstanding fines the hapless drivers can’t afford to pay.
I read the 2017 Austin Police Department Manual online (I couldn’t get access to the free e-pub 2019 manual for some reason); they are obviously working on police transparency, and it looks good. The very first pages emphasize that the police serves the community, that they answer to us. It would be too bad if something as bureaucratic as a spreadsheet set them back.
Also, HR guy, if you ever read this: I get that you want an informal setting to make your job evaluation talks less tense. Austin does have coffee shops with little conference rooms you can reserve — just not Starbucks. The new public library has some nice ones, too.
Header Image: mine