Skip to main content

Shaun Ossei-Owusu, Law, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

  • When: April 21, 2021, 12–1:30 pm
  • Where: Zoom: To register, contact Sophie Kofman at skofman@abfn.org

Calendar event Add this event to your calendar (Outlook, iCal, etc…)

Police Quotas

The American public is slowly recognizing the criminal justice system’s deep defects. Mounting visual evidence of police brutality and social protests are generating an appetite for something different. How to change this system is still an open question. People across the political spectrum vary in their conceptions of the pressing problems and how to solve them. Interestingly, there is one consequential and overlooked area of the criminal justice system where there is broad consensus: police quotas.

Police quotas are formal and informal measures that require police officers to issue a particular number of citations or make a certain number of arrests. Although law enforcement leadership typically denies implementing quotas, courts, legislators, and officers have all confirmed the existence of this practice and linked it to odious criminal justice problems such as racial profiling, policing for profit, and overcriminalization. These problems have led legislators in many states to implement statutory prohibitions on quotas. Some of these statutes are of recent vintage and others are decades old. Nevertheless, these prohibitions and their attendant litigation have escaped sustained analytical scrutiny. Legal scholars typically overlook police quotas, subsume them within other categories (e.g., broken windows-policing), or give pat acknowledgment of their existence without explaining how they work.

This Article corrects these omissions and makes two arguments. First, it contends that police quotas are a significant but undertheorized feature of criminal law and procedure. Quotas make police rewards and sanctions significant features of punishment in ways that can trump criminal offending and pervert due process principles. Second, it argues that quota-based policing is a unique area where there is widespread agreement and possibilities for change. Liberals, libertarians, conservatives, police officers, police unions, and racial minorities have all criticized police quotas. These vastly different constituents have argued that quotas distort police discretion and produce unnecessary police-civilian interactions. This Article supplements these arguments with a novel descriptive, statutory, and jurisprudential account of police quotas in the United States. It offers a framework for understanding the arguments for and objections to quotas, and proposes some normative strategies that could build on statutory and litigation successes.

Photo and bio courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Shaun Ossei-Owusu is an interdisciplinary legal scholar with expertise in legal history, criminal law and procedure, civil rights, and the legal profession. His work sits at the intersection of law, history, and sociology, and focuses on how governments meet their legal obligations to provide protections and benefits to poor people and racial minorities. He also works on stratification in legal education and the legal profession.

He has received awards from social science and humanities organizations such as the American Bar Foundation, American Society for Criminology, American Society for Legal History, The Huntington Library, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation. His work has been published or is forthcoming in the New York University Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Virginia Law Review, Michigan Law Review, UCLA Law Review, Southern California Law Review, Wisconsin Law Review, and the American Journal of Law & Medicine, among other outlets. His public writing has appeared in the ABA Journal, American Prospect, Boston Review, Jacobin, Public Books, and Salon.

His book project, The People's Champ: Legal Aid from Slavery to Mass Incarceration, is under contract with Harvard University Press. Before joining the Penn Law faculty, he was an Academic Fellow and a Kellis E. Parker Teaching Fellow at Columbia Law School. He received his PhD from the Department of African American Studies at UC Berkeley and his JD from Berkeley Law. He previously practiced litigation and healthcare enforcement law at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, D.C., and worked as a Loaned Associate focusing on public benefits appeals with the Barbara McDowell Appellate Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. He is a 2021 New America Fellow and a proud Bronx-born native. 

« Return to ABF Research Seminars

Site design by Webitects

© 2021 American Bar Foundation (AmericanBarFoundation.org)
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611-4403
(312) 988-6500
Contact Us
Contact the Fellows
Media Contacts
Privacy policy
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in ABF publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Bar Foundation or the American Bar Association. The AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION, ABF and related seal trademarks as used by the American Bar Foundation are owned by the American Bar Association and used under license.