Traffic stops are the most common way people come into contact with police, and those encounters can often turn deadly. A Minnesota police officer pulled over Philando Castile for a broken taillight, then shot at him seven times when Castile tried to provide the officer with his license and registration, killing him. A Texas state trooper pulled over Sandra Bland for not signaling when she changed lanes. Three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. A New Jersey state trooper pulled Maurice Gordon over for speeding, then shot him six times, killing him.
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there have been more calls to rethink America’s reliance on police as a cure-all to societal issues they are ill-equipped to deal with. Some cities are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, security guard, and traffic enforcer.
In November, San Francisco launched a program to send behavioral health and medical professionals instead of police to respond to 911 calls involving nonviolent people experiencing mental health crises or substance use issues. The Seattle City Council voted to disband a team of police and outreach workers tasked with responding to homeless people and instead reinvest the team’s funding in community programs to help the homeless. In Portland, Oregon, the mayor and superintendent agreed to remove police officers from the city’s schools and put the $1 million budgeted for school resource officers back into the community. And in Austin, Texas, the City Council voted to cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget to open a family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and more. The council intends to shrink the department’s budget and responsibilities even further by civilianizing many of its current duties, like dispatch and forensics.
Of all the functions that could be separated from the police department, one of the most significant would be the removal of traffic enforcement. Over 24 million people each year come into contact with police during a traffic stop, according to data from the Department of Justice. And traffic stops can be especially dangerous and discriminatory for people of color: Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and as much as twice as likely to be searched, according to a study of 100 million traffic stops conducted by the Stanford Open Policing Project. And 11 percent of all fatal shootings by police in 2015 occurred during traffic stops, according to a Washington Post database of police killings.
“It’s one of the most common ways we see policing situations unfold into disturbing and scary consequences for over-policed communities,” said Jordan Blair Woods, a criminologist and legal scholar at the University of Arkansas School of Law. That’s why, Woods said, it’s important to consider ways to provide a non-police alternative to traffic enforcement.
In an article in Stanford Law Review, Woods puts forth a framework for how local governments can disentangle traffic enforcement from the police department. Under the framework, local governments would reassign most traffic enforcement to separate traffic agencies that are independent from the police department. The agencies would employ unarmed monitors to enforce traffic laws, though exceptions would be made for violations that involve certain crimes that police would still investigate, like hit-and-runs or driving a stolen vehicle. Traffic agencies would also handle any automated traffic enforcement, taking the responsibility to review red light cameras and issue tickets away from the police.
Under the proposed framework, police would no longer be able to make routine stops for minor traffic violations, like speeding or failing to signal. This would mean tens of millions of stops that are conducted each year would be carried out by unarmed traffic monitors, rather than armed police officers who have escalated benign situations to the point of death time and again. Police wouldn’t be able to pull over men like Phil Colbert, who was driving to get lunch with his dad when an Arizona police officer tailed him for 10 minutes, then pulled him over, interrogated him, and demanded to search his vehicle—all for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.
The traffic monitors would not be able to detain, search, or arrest people like police can, and wouldn’t conduct criminal investigations—they would simply enforce traffic laws by conducting stops and issuing citations. Monitors could, in limited circumstances, request police assistance when they uncover a more serious offense, like a DUI, while making a stop. This proposal wouldn’t bar police from conducting felony vehicle stops if they had sufficient evidence that the vehicle was involved in non-traffic related felonies, like robbing a bank, nor would it stop police from being able to investigate crimes that jurisdictions deem serious traffic offenses, like ones that pose imminent harm to people.
“What we have now is a system where traffic enforcement has really been co-opted for criminal enforcement, even though we know from empirical data traffic stops aren’t really good for crime control like drug or weapon interdiction,” Woods said.
Although any proposal to limit the power of police is bound to draw pushback, particularly from powerful police unions, Woods posits that leaving traffic enforcement to monitors would actually benefit police by freeing up their time and resources to concentrate on serious criminal investigations, like rape and murder, and improving public perceptions of police.
Removing police from traffic enforcement may sound revolutionary, but it’s not unattainable—the city of Berkeley, California, has already passed a proposal to do so. The proposal, passed in July, calls for the creation of a department of transportation (BerkDOT) to shift traffic and parking enforcement away from the Berkeley Police Department. Unarmed BerkDOT agents would instead be responsible for carrying out traffic stops, though the details and funding still need to be ironed out.
“If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on Americans’ most common interaction with law enforcement—traffic stops,” Rigel Robinson, the Berkeley City Council member who proposed the initiative, said on Twitter. “Driving while Black shouldn’t be a crime.”
Proposals similar to the one passed by Berkeley were explored in Cambridge, Massachusetts; St. Louis Park, Minnesota; and Montgomery County, Maryland, last year. Elsewhere, bills have been proposed that would bar police from pulling people over for minor traffic infractions, like tinted windows, faulty brake lights, or dangling air fresheners. New York’s attorney general recommended that the NYPD stop handling traffic stops. And in 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., moved the city’s automated traffic enforcement away from the jurisdiction of the police department to the Department of Transportation.
“The goal is to make traffic stops about traffic,” Woods said of the move to decouple traffic enforcement from police. “And in doing that, address the disparity we currently have in traffic enforcement, disparities that can lead to people of color losing their lives.”