For many people, traffic stops can be their first encounter with police, but it’s this first encounter that can open a door to a slippery slide into the criminal justice system—simply because of poverty. An AL article written by Jerry Wiley, a former captain at the Birmingham Police Department, shares his perspective on traffic stops, saying this form of policing makes poverty a crime.
Wiley isn’t the first to draw the connection between poverty and traffic policing, as researchers have documented this problem for decades—linking over-policing and traffic stops to the race of the individual being targeted.
Wiley began his article by describing how early in his career, he wanted his men and women in the West Precinct, the city’s largest precinct, to spend more time on the beat for proactive and preventative patrol—like community policing and community interaction.
But as he was rising in the ranks, commanding staff would often instruct precinct commanders like himself to increase citations and establish roadblocks in “high crime areas.” Their belief was that increased officer presence in a specific area would deter would-be criminals and catch anyone who was a community threat.
“At least that was the theory,” Wiley writes.
He explains now that he believes the “busy work” steered the department away from its core responsibility—crime prevention—and instead “created criminals” in order to keep enforcement numbers high.
“We have ended up just being a reactionary force that arrests people after they committed a crime, rather than preventing them from committing the crime in the first place,” Wiley says.
‘Low Hanging Fruit’
Wiley writes that in his department and elsewhere, “officers are expected to show productivity by making arrests and writing citations.” Because of this mentality, Wiley says there is an environment where “officers are almost forced” to “create criminals” out of “low hanging fruit.”
For example, a person driving with an expired tag seems like a straightforward traffic stop and an opportunity to issue a citation. What can begin as a simple stop, for many people living paycheck to paycheck with piling up bills and other necessities, spirals into an entanglement with the system.
Wiley takes this scenario a step further, describing a single mother juggling multiple minimum wage jobs and young children being unable to pay for an expired tag resulting in her missing her court date for the citation, having a warrant out for her arrest for failing to appear, and then driving with a suspended license for not showing up.
“Now one of my officers has hit the jackpot of enforcement actions—we get three more citations and an arrest on top of it,” Wiley writes. “Meanwhile, our single mother now has a criminal arrest record, all because she didn’t have resources to pay for a tag renewal.”
This entanglement with the justice system stemming from poverty—and race—is a cyclical process that’s unfortunately well documented.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher John Raphling investigated police interactions with Black communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where many Black residents are living in poverty at much higher rates than white people, subjected to higher crime and aggressive policing, according to HRW.org
His investigation concluded that “some neighborhoods with larger populations of black people and poor people experienced police stops more than 10 times the rate of predominantly white and wealthier neighborhoods.”
Researchers made similar conclusions recently in California.
As part of a reimagining public safety omnibus, the City Council in Berkeley, California is working with experts in the transportation, criminology and public policy fields after making a grim data discovery about who is being stopped, according to the Berkeley Side.
In 2019, Berkeley police conducted roughly 11,000 traffic stops. By comparison, Oakland, a city 3.5 times larger, had only 14,600 stops. Further, these stops aren’t spread equally across all racial and ethnic groups.
Black people make up only 8 percent of Berkeley’s population, yet account for 34 percent of vehicle stops—4.3 times the percent of the population, the Berkeley Side details.
“When placed in the context of the national experience of police violence, these unnecessary and excessive encounters by armed officers make traffic stops terrifying for the Black community,” the Berkeley Side concludes.
This connects back to poverty rates, considering that 20 percent of the population in Berkeley live below the poverty line, “a number that is higher than the national average of 13.1 percent,” according to Data USA.
Overall, Wiley believes that his philosophy of policing with intention and not working to “create criminals” is one that many communities and precincts across the country can get behind.
“Crime prevention is our number one priority, everything else we do takes a back seat to that,” he concluded.
Additional Reading: Study Finds ‘Persistent’ Racial Bias in Police Traffic Stops and Searches