BISMARCK -- Around 10:45 a.m. on a recent March day, North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Rost rolled out of the patrol’s Bismarck regional office.
The trooper took his cruiser onto Interstate Highway 94, where the weather was sunny and warm and the traffic was cruising along. About 12 minutes into his patrol, Rost made his first stop.
A Cadillac van with Montana plates was doing 85 mph in a 75 mph zone, earning the driver a $50 ticket.
Over the next two hours, Rost handed out another citation for failure to wear a seatbelt in the front seat and two warnings, one for speeding and one for expired tags.
"People will often tell you about their life during a traffic stop," Rost said.
The man who had failed to update his tags had already been cited and told Rost he was an oilfield worker going through a divorce. The woman warned for driving 81 mph in a 75 mph zone told Rost her speedometer read 79 mph. She also joked that her husband, riding unbelted in the front seat, "likes being a crash test dummy."
Rost didn't hesitate to pull somebody over for exhibiting dangerous driving behavior, but he said his reason for doing so was road safety and not to meet an annual quota.
But a recent email from NDHP Southeast Detachment Capt. Bryan Niewind recently congratulated troopers in an email for various traffic safety enforcement awards before listing "2015 goal numbers ... for traffic troopers."
Fargo troopers were given a goal of 14 driving-under-the-influence arrests, 72 right-of-way violation warnings or citations, 60 seatbelt violation warnings or citations, 240 speed enforcement warnings and citations and two drug arrests.
Col. Michael Gerhart confirmed the email's authenticity and said the numbers are similar for the Bismarck area, but was adamant that the numbers provided were goals and not a quota.
"I don't support quotas, and there won't be quotas in the future," said Gerhart, explaining that the email provided priorities not requirements.
"Our focus is crash prevention," Gerhart said. "Our No. 1 goal, our sole mission, is saving lives."
North Dakota has no shortage of vehicle fatalities.
In 2014, 136 people died in fatal crashes in North Dakota, with 53 of those crashes being alcohol-related. In 76 cases, the person killed was not wearing a seatbelt. More than two dozen of those killed died during right-of-way crashes. In 2013, one person died in a vehicle crash in North Dakota every two-and-a-half days.
Rost said he viewed the goals as just that and said he felt no pressure to meet them. He said he didn't always meet the numbers provided due to other responsibilities.
"Sometimes, you get involved in other things, and it just doesn't happen," he said.
Rost, a 13-year veteran of the patrol, has been watching North Dakota's population grow with the oil boom -- and, with it, more traffic accidents. Rost said the goals keep troopers focused on driving offenses known to contribute to fatalities.
Scrutiny of any patrol quotas has increased with a recent proposal, still under consideration, to tie traffic troopers' annual 2 percent to 4 percent merit pay raise to their performance in making stops, at least in part.
The idea would be to reward high performers with the maximum possible merit raise of 4 percent, according to NDHP Capt. Aaron Hummel.
Command staff would look at the totality of a trooper's annual performance when evaluating whether to award a merit raise, not just the number of traffic stops, according to Iverson, adding that other areas of consideration, would include whether a trooper spent time teaching at the state's Law Enforcement Training Academy, serving as a field training officer to new recruits or participating in community outreach efforts, such as the Trooper on a Bus program.
Gerhart said he is sensitive to the perception of troopers being paid more for making more stops.
"It's a really sensitive topic," he said for members of the public as well as among troopers. "We've taken the stance that we're not going to incentivize tickets."
While no trooper has publicly voiced opposition to the proposed pay-for-performance plan, according to NDHP Lt. Thomas Iverson, who said command staff understood there are troopers who are troubled by the matter.
Gerhart conceded that morale among the troopers isn't 100 percent, but said his staff was working to improve that, and the proposed pay-for-performance plan was part of that.
Gerhart said that any change to the current merit pay raise structure is a long way off.
"We're more concerned with getting it right than with getting it done," he said.
Currently, troopers receive a 3 percent annual merit increase unless they have been placed on an improvement plan. Gerhart said troopers can be placed on an improvement plan for failure to make stops, but, before that happens, command staff would meet with the trooper to determine why.
Iverson said that performance reviews and goals are a necessary part of maintaining national accreditation, and every NDHP division sets goals, not just the traffic enforcement division.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Rost rolled back into the highway patrol's Channel Avenue office. He'd given as many warnings as he had citations. Rost said his goal was always to help motorists and keep them safe, with citations and arrests serving as a last resort.
"Contrary to belief, we really do like to help people," he said.