May 6, 2023

What to do about a drop in traffic enforcement?


PERF members,

The traffic stop has been a staple of policing as long as there have been cars and cops. Many crimes, from reckless driving to drive-by shootings, involve cars. There have been famous traffic stops. Oklahoma State Trooper Charles Hanger was on patrol in 1995 when he stopped a yellow Mercury without a license plate. After noticing a bulge under the driver’s jacket, Trooper Hanger arrested the driver for operating an unlicensed vehicle and possessing a concealed firearm without a legal permit. As the driver was awaiting arraignment, the FBI identified him as Timothy McVeigh, who had bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City a little over an hour before being stopped by Trooper Hanger.

And there have been infamous traffic stops. In 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over by Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia in Waller County, Texas for failing to signal a lane change. During the traffic stop, Trooper Encina told Bland to step out of her vehicle after she declined his request that she put out her cigarette. She refused to step out of her car until he pointed a Taser at her. She was ultimately arrested for kicking Trooper Encinia, and died by suicide in jail three days later.

Over the past few years, agencies across the country have reported a decrease in traffic enforcement. In Maryland, traffic stops decreased 43 percent from 2019 to 2020. In Pittsburgh, police made half as many traffic stops in 2021 as they made in 2019. And in St. Louis, vehicle stops have fallen steadily since 2009, and there were 47 percent fewer stops in 2021 than there were 12 years earlier.

At the same time, the U.S. has seen an increase in traffic fatalities. According to NHTSA, traffic fatalities increased by more than 18 percent from 2019 to 2021 before decreasing slightly in 2022.

I’m not suggesting that a drop in traffic enforcement is the only reason for rising traffic deaths. When roads were emptier, early in the pandemic, people may have become accustomed to driving faster than they used to. And I think this may be part of a general rise in some types of antisocial behavior, from fights on planes to road rage shootings. But I do think the drop in enforcement is part of the story. And a reduction in traffic stops could mean fewer opportunities for officers and deputies to discover guns or people with outstanding warrants. All this has police chiefs and sheriffs asking themselves what may happen due to this reduction in traffic stops.

Some of this pullback was intentional. Early in the pandemic, police leaders told officers to limit their in-person contacts, including traffic stops, to avoid catching and spreading the virus. Some municipalities chose to cut back on traffic enforcement in response to protests after the murder of George Floyd. And I think some of this is due to officers pulling back on discretionary engagement after those protests. Police may have been nervous about any incident escalating into a national news story, and might have felt unappreciated and unsupported amid the nationwide demonstrations about policing.

Legitimate concerns have been raised about racial disparities in traffic enforcement, and those disparities can be detrimental to police-community trust. To address these disparities, many agencies have implemented better supervision of traffic stop practices or reduced traffic enforcement activity.

Some places need to cut back on traffic enforcement. We still have municipalities that use traffic enforcement to generate revenue instead of increase community safety. But I don’t think that’s the case in most parts of the country.

Many police officials see traffic stops as a valuable tool for seizing drugs and guns and identifying people wanted on warrants. They understand concerns about racial disparities and over-policing, but they also want to make legitimate stops in the “hot spots” where violent crime is occurring, with the hope that they will also seize a gun or detain someone wanted for a violent crime.

So what should be done? First, leaders should assess the circumstances in which traffic stops make sense for their agencies. Then they may want to push officers and deputies to conduct more traffic enforcement. Police leaders could identify the enforcement activities likely to have the greatest effect on traffic safety, and direct resources there. Make it clear that these activities are in the interest of community safety, and supervise actions to make sure they are conducted appropriately and accomplish their intended objectives.

Another possible option is to conduct more automated traffic enforcement. Automated enforcement increases the certainty of punishment, uses fewer personnel hours, and can alleviate some concerns about possible discrimination during discretionary enforcement. Oregon, Arkansas, and New York have all taken steps in recent weeks to increase their use of speed cameras.

Municipalities can also try non-enforcement approaches to improving traffic safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation promotes a “Safe System Approach” that includes five objectives: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and better post-crash care.

We also need to analyze what traffic stops accomplish. Do they help reduce crashes? Are they valuable for seizing guns and drugs? What do we lose when we cut back on traffic stops? Agencies may want to collaborate with researchers from a local university to analyze their traffic stop data.

I plan to discuss this topic at PERF’s Annual Meeting. I’d like to hear from you: Have traffic stops decreased in your agencies?  Have traffic deaths increased? Has your community expressed any concerns about racial disparities in traffic stops? If so, how have you addressed those concerns? I hope you’ll be able to join us in New York City on July 17-19 to explore this topic and many others.