North Carolina City Demonstrates ‘Safety Focused’ Traffic Stops

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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

A police department in Fayetteville, N.C. changed its focus on motor vehicles from stopping drivers for nonmoving violations such as equipment failures or expired registration to instead only enforcing moving violations of immediate concern to public safety, such as speeding, stop sign/light violations, DWI and reckless driving. Their efforts could be the model for the rest of the state and the country, reports USA Today. The traffic stop is the most common police-citizen interaction.

Across the country, police pull over 50,000 drivers on a typical day, more than 20 million motorists a year. Studies have shown that Black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops, and once stopped, they are more likely to have their cars searched during the stop, a situation fraught with danger.

When it comes to pretext traffic stops, in which officers pull someone over for supposedly violating traffic laws, police have become a kind of tax collector, the traffic stops allow police to generate profits, either via doling out traffic citations or in patrolling for people with warrants, but also allow for negative interactions to occur that can ultimately lead to unnecessary deaths, reports Vox.

Philando Castile, Maurice Gordon, Ronell Foster, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, and Sandra Bland were all pulled over by police for traffic stops, which included broken tail lights, failing to use turn signals, and riding a bike with no light. Pretext stops by police have become a practice of policing for profit.

A key mechanism embedded within the criminal legal system, and related to pretext traffic stops, is the system of monetary sanctions, or punishments that require payment. This system consists of fines, fees, restitution, and costs sentenced to people at the same time they are convicted and sent to jail or prison. Pretext traffic stops disproportionately target Black drivers more than white drivers, particularly within predominantly Black communities. As a result, Black drivers are searched 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers.

The practice of pretext traffic stops allows police to surveil communities of color, over-patrol them, and pull people over. The case of Daunte Wright pulled over for having expired registration tags, .exemplifies a problem that has been festering for years. A Washington Post article from 2015 reported that as a result of traffic stops, in one year, 100 people were killed by the police across the US.  Of these people, one in 3 were Black.

(Former Brooklyn Center, Minn., police officer Kimberly A. Potter made her first court appearance Thursday, one day after being charged with second-degree manslaughter for killing 20-year-old Daunte Wright during that traffic stop, the Washington Post reported. If convicted, Potter’s second-degree manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison; under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, Potter would likely serve closer to four years given her lack of criminal history.]

From 2013-2016, the more safety-focused discretionary practices of the Fayetteville police department resulted in a dramatic decrease in nonmoving violations, zero investigative stops over four years, and a decrease in stops for speeding. The number of Black drivers searched from 2013 to 2016 also declined by nearly 50 percent compared with the previous four years, from 5,980 to 3,059.  This style of policing resulted in a decrease in traffic fatalities and proved wrong the predictions of critics that traffic safety would decline.

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