Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

One of the questions at the heart of the national debate over race and policing is why minorities are routinely arrested for petty offenses—drinking on the sidewalk, hanging out in the park after it closes, driving with a suspended license. One reductive explanation for these arrests is that there’s simply more crime in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Another is that cops stereotype minorities as miscreants. But what if some of these arrests are motivated by something more official?

That’s what a class-action lawsuit filed by several cops against the New York City Police Department alleges. The lawsuit, which was filed four months ago, takes issue with the department’s alleged implementation of quotas for arrests and court summonses. Such quotas are prohibited in New York, as well as in several other states, but the NYPD, the plaintiffs maintain, nevertheless holds officers to monthly goals for making arrests and writing tickets.

The plaintiffs' complaint carries troubling implications. As police officers, after all, they have great authority over the lives of other Americans. But their fundamental concern—how a focus on metrics can distort a job's larger purpose—is not unique to police work. America’s workers are being monitored more and more closely by their managers. The number of hours worked, number of meetings attended, and even preferred Internet browser can be used to extrapolate productivity, possibly leading to an overemphasis on work that is quantifiable, to the exclusion of work that isn’t. The collection of data isn’t inherently problematic, but it does run the risk of fostering a system that rewards cops for filling jails without necessarily reducing violent crime or helping the community at large.

The problem, the plaintiffs say, is that police commanders will often try to appease the department’s top brass by pushing their officers to make more arrests in poorer, minority neighborhoods. While there are often higher rates of serious crime in these areas, a quantitative approach means that police face pressure to respond to such crimes by arresting people for trivial reasons—or for no reason at all. If the cops don’t fulfill their quotas, according to the plaintiffs, their superiors penalize them, denying their vacation requests, assigning them to midnight shifts, or limiting their hopes of getting promoted.

The plaintiffs, all of them minorities themselves, have been arguing that it’s tough to make a decent living and advance in their jobs without engaging in this aggressive, numbers-based style of policing. They complain that this means-to-an-end, results-based mentality can put them in a bind. Sandy Gonzalez, an officer in the Bronx and the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff, described the dynamic to me by imagining what he’d say to a hypothetical offender: “When it comes to the end of the month, and I need that number … dude, it’s your neck or mine.”

If penalties such as denied vacation requests do indeed exist, it’s easy to see why some cops might do whatever they can to avoid them. In a city and a country where blue-collar jobs are harder and harder to come by, law enforcement still offers a clear path to the middle class and the nice things that come with it—the house in Staten Island, the two cars in the driveway, college tuition for the kids. Cops who receive positive evaluations can join specialized units and eventually rise to the coveted rank of detective, earning as much as six figures a year.

But when officers fail to deliver the desired numbers, that path can close up quickly, some officers say. Gonzalez, for example, says he received a failing grade on an important evaluation because he hadn’t met a monthly quota. Another cop I talked to said the temptation to make unnecessary arrests can be overwhelming. The NYPD, she said, puts its own cops in “financial handcuffs.”

NYPD officials have long denied that there’s a quota system in the department, even as, over the years, a series of lawsuits have challenged that claim. Most recently, an attorney filed documents in Manhattan Federal Court charging the NYPD with engaging in a “stunning pattern” of evidence destruction to cover up the quota system, as The New York Daily News recently reported. (The NYPD didn’t respond to my requests for comment about these allegations or the other claims made by those mentioned in this article.)

According to whistleblower cops such as Gonzalez, supervisors in the NYPD often try to euphemistically maneuver around the quota ban by pressuring cops to generate more “activity.” If supervisors don’t apply enough pressure, they themselves might risk punishment or humiliation at the hands of their higher-ups.

Calls for increased “activity” are not the same as quotas per se, and a court may find that they’re different enough to be deemed legal. However, even lawful pressure to ramp up activity in the absence of specific quotas may be just as harmful: Commanders who constantly prod their underlings to think more about results open up the possibility of needlessly aggressive policing, whether they attach numbers to their demands or not.

Just as in New York, trials around the country have uncovered evidence of quota systems, even as local police departments deny their existence. Recently, a Sacramento jury awarded $125,000 to a 78-year-old man who had sued a pair of highway cops for wrongfully arresting him during a traffic stop after one of the officers punched him and knocked him to the ground. Documents produced at the trial showed that the cop who pulled the man over had previously been reprimanded by the California Highway Patrol for being too soft on drivers. The cop’s average of five “enforcement contacts” per day was “not acceptable,” an evaluation introduced as evidence declared—in other words, he needed to pull more people over.

So what’s the alternative to quotas? Unlike some critics, the plaintiffs in the NYPD lawsuit aren’t arguing for the decriminalization of minor violations. What they want is to be able to use their judgment when it comes to responding to these offenses. As Gonzalez put it, “Sometimes putting handcuffs on people isn’t the way to resolve something.”

The opposition to quotas can transcend the usual ideological lines. It is one of the rare debates that finds Patrick Lynch, the outspoken leader of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Union, on the same side as the New York Civil Liberties Union. Even Bill Bratton, the commissioner of New York’s police force, who rose to national renown while championing numbers-based policing during his first stint as the head of the department back in the ‘90s, has recently said he intends to shift the department’s focus to “the quality of police actions, with less emphasis on their numbers, and more emphasis on our actual impact.”

Not everyone finds this rhetoric persuasive, however. I recently talked to an officer who, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she feared repercussions at work, said she feels professional pressure to be more aggressive. She told me that her friends had been hiring her to do hair and makeup at their weddings, providing her with a little extra cash to supplement her veteran cop’s salary. Engaging in entrepreneurial efforts such as these, she said, are the only way she's able to afford not to play the department's numbers game.

A woman in her forties with nearly 20 years on the job, she questioned the department’s sincerity when it came to favoring quality over quantity. “As much as they say they care about the people and the public, they don’t,” she said. “They’ll be at the community meeting saying, ‘We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that,’ but once roll call hits, it’s, ‘Hammer them. Give me 10 summonses.’”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.