About 200 union and non-union Raleigh Police Department employees have filed grievances and complaints over a controversial new performance evaluation system.

The Performance-Based Management System, which Donald Van Meter, a police management consultant, helped design, became a permanent feature of the department last month.

But representatives of the Raleigh Police Protective Association (RPPA), a union-backed organization with more than 500 sworn city police officers as members, have criticized the new system. Its most glaring shortcoming, says Rick Armstrong, RPPA spokesman, is that it favors quantity over quality. To many members, the program looks and feels like a quota-based system, Armstrong says. “Many officers become officers because they want to help people, and I’m not sure how you put a number on that,” he says.

Van Meter, whose Ohio-based consulting firm was paid $50,000 by the city for developing the new system, says the RPPA is wrong. “I would love to come down there and talk with the union and make them defend everything they’ve said to mischaracterize this program,” Van Meter says.

However, Van Meter has the support of the department’s top brass, including outgoing Raleigh police chief Harry Dolan. Efforts to revamp the department’s evaluation procedures began in 2007, the first year Dolan was chief.

Back then, RPD personnel were evaluated using the same standards as all other city employees. The problem, says Dolan, was that the city’s system is poorly suited to grade police performance. According to Dolan, police command staff had long complained that the system did not accurately measure performance. The previous standard also made it difficult for supervisors to “sit down with anyone and help them improve their performance in any professional way,” Dolan says.

A July 2012 memo from Dolan to Raleigh City Manager Russell Allen highlights the previous system’s limitations. According to the memo, about 92 percent of police department employees rated “outstanding” in their most recent performance review; this is compared with 85 percent of the city’s total employees receiving the same rating.

But according to department officials, the grades are based on subjective information compiled by the employees’ supervisor. “What we were looking for was a way of getting objective information,” Dolan says.

Enter Van Meter’s system, which began as a pilot program in July 2010. The goal was to develop a method of evaluating employee performance that could provide a more accurate accounting of how officers spend their time, Van Meter says.

Both he and Dolan confirm that the Raleigh Police Department is the first law enforcement group of its sizethe department employs 777 officersto incorporate all three planks of Van Meter’s strategy for measuring officer performance: nonscheduled absenteeism, the cost of preventable error and productive use of time.

The time element has sparked tensions between department leaders and union members. Under the new system, supervising officers are directed to provide their subordinates with a list of strategic priorities. Patrol officers and other department employees who have a significant amount of “self-directed time” are graded in part by the number of priority items they accomplish each day. The totals are then averaged, with the expectation that the tallies for all employees in a given work group should fall within 20 percent of one another.

The 20 percent figure is derived from a 100-year-old business management theory. In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto created a mathematical algorithm that explained how 80 percent of his country’s wealth was owned by just 20 percent of its people. Today, the 80-20 rule is used by efficiency theorists like Van Meter to describe how 80 percent of work performed is completed by 20 percent of a given group of employees. The new evaluation program, says Van Meter, “is designed to identify the outliers who fall somewhere outside of that upper range.”

Unlike the old system, their supervisors will now evaluate police department employees every four months. Those employees that consistently fall outside of the 20 percent range could be recommended for a remediation plan.

Officers are scheduled to undergo their first evaluations in November.

For the last 25 years, Van Meter has worked with law enforcement agencies to quantify police performance. During that time, Van Meter says, his performance evaluation systems have rankled law enforcement personnel in other cities where they’re been implemented, though he declines to provide specific examples.

That pattern is holding true in Raleigh. Since the system was made permanent last month, 160about a thirdof the Raleigh Police Protective Association’s members have filed formal grievances in complaint, he says. According to Armstrong, non-union department employees have filed another 40 complaints.

Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin, who leads the council’s public safety committee, says she hopes police officials will form an in-house task force to “assure the rank and file that their feedback on the system is being taken seriously.”

Armstrong, himself a former RPD officer, says the complexities of the new system hamper officers from using their own discretion in how to prioritize their duties.

“Officers have to ask themselves if what they’re doing is going to benefit the public as a whole,” Armstrong adds. “And I don’t think that instituting what’s not a true quota system, but a system where officers have to maintain certain stats, is appropriate, as it takes away that ability.”

Chief Dolan disagrees. “We’re a very aggressive police department,” Dolan says. “But the system is designed to help get officers to engage with the community, not decrease their discretion.”

According to the system guidelines, the “Priority Performance Measures” will be developed in part by the department’s community policing strategy, including conversations with residents of the community being policed.

Dolan won’t have to deal with the controversial system much longer. After more than 30 years as a policeman, Dolan will retire as chief on Oct. 1.

City Manager Russell Allen says he will form a committee to conduct a national search for Dolan’s replacement.

Dolan’s successor could have a different opinion about the new evaluation system. However, Allen says he expects the department will continue using the system even after Dolan departs.

“Obviously anyone who comes in after Chief Dolan will have their own ideas, but I think they’ll take a look at what we’ve been doing and see the merit in it,” Allen says.

This article appeared in print with the headline “This will go down on your permanent record.”