Eliminate Police Role in Traffic Stops: Report

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Photo by Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals via Flickr

Taking the responsibility of traffic stops away from police officers would reduce the associated danger of America’s most common interaction with the police, according to researchers from the Urban Institute. 

Events such as the killing of Daunte Wright prove that traffic stops don’t always end with a speeding ticket or slap on the wrist. Instead, an officer’s discretion can influence when they pull a person over, as well as how to proceed with the stop.

The risk of experiencing more frequent and more dangerous traffic stops is even higher for people of color, with Black and Latinx people much more likely to be pulled over in a traffic stop than white people, the Urban Institute said in a policy blog.

Obtaining written consent before searching a vehicle without probable cause and reworking how officers prioritize stops for low-level traffic offenses were other proposed reforms.

The blog was authored by research analysts Libby Doyle and Susan Nembhard, who detailed the history of traffic stops and how their associated racial disparity has caused trauma on many communities.

In the early 1900s, it started to become more normal for Americans to own cars, which gave rise to the need for rules regarding driver and pedestrian safety. At first, the policing of those rules was done by civilian “traffic vigilantes” in the 1920s,  who were responsible for holding drivers accountable for speeding or reckless driving, and conducting traffic stops as we know them today.

Uniformed police replaced the vigilantes in order to establish systematic monitoring and enforcing. Traffic stops are now the most common interaction for most civilisans with police.

But the “traffic cop” role has been enlarged from its original purpose. Beyond deterring motorists from unsafe driving, police now use traffic stops to “stop, detain and search people they believe are engaging in criminal activity,” said the authors.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that officers often use their own discretion when deciding how to handle a traffic stop. This means that while one officer might pull over a car for having music that’s too loud or waiting too long to signal a turn, another officer might choose to not pull them over at all.

This discretion not only affects why someone is pulled over but also what happens during a stop.

This includes pretextual stops, or when an officer uses a valid reason for a traffic stop like a broken tail light to search for other suspected criminal activity, like drug use.

The commonality of traffic stops as well as disparity towards people of color makes them “the most dangerous” interaction with police, and often “have little to do with public safety,” said the authors.

“The deeply entrenched racial disparities in traffic enforcement and the continued killing of Black drivers show that regardless of intentions, the harms of traffic stops far outweigh any potential public safety benefits,” said the authors.

“Traffic stops result in neither increased trust in the police nor increased perceptions of safety among community members, and they often have the opposite effect.“

Proposed solutions included using technology and other means to monitor traffic violations, reducing the use of stops for low-level traffic offenses, and requiring written consent for searches without probable cause.

The Urban Institute recommended that cities develop community engagement strategies to attack the major problems caused by traffic stops.

According to the authors, taking police out of traffic stops entirely, and perhaps replacing them with speed or red light cameras, could help lessen the disproportional impact on Black and Latinx people.

Also, “deprioritizing” low-level traffic offenses like not wearing a seat belt could help lessen the overall number of people being pulled over, which would likely lead to less disparities over all, said the authors.

“Inclusive community engagement strategies” would give the voice to community members, who would decide how their city or town would handle public safety.

Amidst the proposed reforms, “policymakers should be conscious of the implications of such policies, given the country’s racist history of surveilling Black communities,” said the authors, noting that each level of policy regarding traffic stops would have to be analyzed so not to further disparities.

Some cities are already changing the narrative for traffic stops across the country, according to the blog.

A police department in Fayetteville, NC, recently changed its policy so that violations of “immediate concern to public safety such as speeding, stop sign/light violations, DWI and reckless driving” were prioritized over an expired registration.

Additional Reading:

North Carolina City Demonstrates ‘Safety Focused’ Traffic Stops

ALSO: Police ‘Create Criminals’ for Traffic Stops, Criminalizing Poverty

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

One thought on “Eliminate Police Role in Traffic Stops: Report

  1. This article and the underlying Urban Institute blog post reflect the common or near universal view that generally reducing traffic stops will tend to reduce the relative racial differences in traffic stops. In fact, however, the opposite is the case.

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