Fake breath tests show perils of KPI perverse incentives

By David Donaldson

June 1, 2018

Close up pen on paperwork and woman hand calculate finance.

A significant number of random breath tests conducted by Victoria Police in recent years have been fake, in what appears to be an example of the potential for perverse incentives in key performance indicators.

Police have either been blowing into breathalysers themselves or putting their finger across the space where the straw is placed, creating a result of 0.00.

Police falsified at least 258,000 breath tests out of 17 million over five and a half years — around 1.5% of tests completed in that time — The Age reported this week. And that’s just the ones that were easily identifiable as fake, conducted too close together to have been real.

The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, which acts as Victoria’s independent police oversight body, says it is in ongoing discussions with Victoria Police about their ongoing investigation into the matter.

“The evidence that Victoria Police officers have falsified tests is deeply concerning, as is the evidence of a culture that has enabled this to occur and not be detected or immediately dealt with,” IBAC Commissioner Robert Redlich said.

IBAC was advised of a complaint made to Victoria Police about falsified tests in September last year and is in discussions with Victoria Police about how to respond to these issues.

“The Victoria Police investigation must be robust, thorough and far reaching to address the clear opportunities to examine issues of culture, determine if there has been any criminality or serious breaches of discipline, and importantly, to ensure this sort of behaviour does not occur again,” Redlich said.

Pressure to hit KPIs

Police have described being pressured to complete what some saw as unreasonable numbers of breath tests on a shift. Often this was at the same time as being expected to complete other duties.

It looks like a classic example of performance KPIs driving perverse incentives.

Police are expected to conduct 1,100,000 tests a year. That number will jump to 3,500,000 next financial year.

Whether for good or bad reasons — laziness, under-resourcing, more pressing issues, management problems, or something else — police across the system have evidently been deciding to fudge the statistics. For some, padding out the results would help end a “boring” night out on the highway more quickly.

It’s a pretty common problem across government, and has been observed in policing many times — like when South Africa’s government made it a police KPI to lower the crime rate, so police just stopped recording many crimes.

But Police Minister Lisa Neville argues police are not under pressure to rack up breath tests, as they were comfortably meeting targets.

“There’s not this pressure to meet some target. They are well above it,” she said.

In two of the last five years the overall 1,100,000 target had not been met, however, while other years did not exceed the target by a lot.

Neville also pointed out that false readings had peaked in 2013-14, but requiring two officers to work together had since reduced the problem.

The Police Association argues it’s a result of the combination of under-resourcing and targets.

“Call them whatever you want, targets, quotas, objectives. It’s no lie, every individual van across the state gets told that they have to target PBTs [preliminary breath tests]. It does happen. It happens every shift,” Police Association boss Wayne Gatt told 3AW radio.

Former head of ACT Policing Roman Quaedvlieg thinks something is up with how KPIs are used too.

“The primary concern in this finding is the systemic nature of this practice across the police force,” he tweeted.

“There is a profound unhealthy issue at play here at the intersection of KPIs, culture and performance.”

It’s worrying that no police officer reported this clearly concerning conduct to IBAC or Victoria Police command, said IBAC commissioner Redlich. The Transport Accident Commission was instead the one to initially raise concerns when it found anomalies in the data.

“Victoria Police officers have a clear obligation not to turn a blind eye to any police misconduct, and to report it to Victoria Police or to IBAC so it can be thoroughly dealt with.”

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