November 6, 2021

Is It Time to Rethink Traffic Stops?


Dear PERF members,

If I were  a new police chief coming into a department, one of the first things I might do is call the command staff into a meeting and ask them a straightforward question: “What’s our policy or practice on traffic stops?” 

Of course, the command staff would probably think, “This is our new chief, and he wants to know our policy on traffic stops?”

But think about it. Something  as commonplace as traffic stops can tell you a lot about a department. On the surface, they might seem routine, but the purpose of traffic stops varies a lot in different departments. And a traffic stop that goes badly can be a nightmare for everyone, including a new police chief.

Bear with me for a minute as I deconstruct a traffic stop.

First, there’s the decision of whom to stop, for what types of violations. How much thought goes into identifying department-wide priorities and values on the decisions to stop a motorist? Then, there’s the issue of how people are treated when they are stopped. And how officers are trained to approach a vehicle, and what tactics are used. And the decisions about what sanction to give a motorist who violates the traffic code in a big way, or a little way. And what to do when the person in the car decides not to cooperate. And of course, all of this may be video-recorded by the officer’s dashcam and/or body-worn camera, by the motorist’s dashcam or cell phone, and/or by passers-by on the street.

Think about everything that is taught in the police academy and how it finds its way into traffic stops. Discretion, race, procedural justice, judgment, proportionality, officer safety, expectations of management, crime in the area, and measures of productivity. The officer has to ask, “What does my sergeant expect of me? What does the community expect of me?”

When traffic stops turn fatal

So a new police chief, asking that one question of the command staff, “What is our policy and practice on traffic stops,” can learn a lot about the values and priorities of the department. Traffic stops have become part of the DNA of police departments, so when a number of cities like Philadelphia or Berkeley move to limit or stop conducting police traffic stops for minor violations, it gets our attention.

Last week the New York Times published two major articles about traffic stops:  (1) highlighting troubling cases in which traffic stops turned deadly, and (2) discussing how some cities use traffic stops more as a revenue source than a traffic safety tool.

Traffic stops can be dangerous both for citizens and cops alike. The Times identified more than 400 cases in the past five years in which drivers or passengers were killed by police during traffic stops. In all of these cases, the drivers or passengers were not armed with a knife or gun, and they were not being pursued for a violent crime.

At the same time, the Times noted that “of the roughly 280 officers killed on duty since late 2016, about 60 died — mostly by gunfire — at the hands of motorists who had been pulled over.”

The cases included many horrific stories that are tough to read, such as the Oklahoma state trooper who said “We have got to take him out” over the radio to officers chasing a man suspected of shoplifting a bottle of vodka.  Or the Tennessee sheriff who ordered his deputies to shoot a motorist with a suspended license, saying “Don’t ram him, shoot him!” because he didn’t want his patrol cars damaged.

Five officers have been convicted of crimes in the 400 cases, the Times found, and local governments paid at least $125 million to resolve wrongful-death lawsuits in about 40 of the cases.

It’s also important to note that traffic stops present a danger of officers being struck accidentally by other vehicles. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 38 officers were killed in traffic-related incidents in the first half of 2021, and exactly half – 19 officers – were fatally struck by vehicles while on the side of the road

Many chiefs will tell you that traffic stops aren’t just about traffic; they’re also an important tool for investigating serious crime. In some cities, police don’t pull over a car for an improper lane change because it’s a threat to traffic safety. They pull cars over because they’re looking for people illegally carrying guns or involved in criminal activity.

There are intended and unintended consequences with these strategies. With a record number of guns on the streets, police departments see traffic stops as part of their crime strategy.

But when you have a common practice of pulling people over because you’re hoping to find dangerous violent offenders, that makes the entire traffic stop situation much more dangerous – especially because officers are extremely vulnerable when they approach an unknown motorist with no cover. Officers are often at a tactical disadvantage.

Because traffic stops can be dangerous, officers are trained to be hyper-vigilant and suspicious of motorists they stop. The Times article noted that many officers who fatally shot unarmed motorists cited their police training that stressed the danger of vehicle stops. “In many departments, police academy lessons and daily briefings include a steady diet of body-worn camera videos that depict easygoing officers being gunned down by drivers who whipped out overlooked firearms,” the article said.

Policing for revenue

On the same day it ran its story about lethal traffic stops, the NYT ran a separate story about municipalities that generate a significant portion of their revenue from traffic tickets and other fines and fees for minor violations. The article cites several particularly egregious examples, such as a Louisiana town of 2,000 people that collected 89% of its general revenues through fines in 2019, and an Oklahoma town that gives drunk drivers tickets for negligent driving and public intoxication rather than DUI, a more serious charge. Why? Because the revenue from the lesser offenses stays with the town. 

It’s a shame that we still have cities and towns that mix up the goals of public safety and funding government.  PERF addressed this issue back in 2015 when we produced a report on this phenomenon in St. Louis County. Here’s some of what PERF said back then:

An inappropriate and misguided mission has been thrust upon the police in many communities: the need to generate large sums of revenue for their city governments. The role of police is to protect the public and to work with local communities to solve problems of crime and disorder—not to harass residents with absurd systems of fines and penalties, mostly for extremely minor offenses.

This type of policing is not what officers want to be doing. Young men and women become police officers because they want to serve their communities and protect them, not because they want to harass the people they are charged with serving. In many communities, good police officers are caught up in a bad system.

This week I got a call from Roger Chesley, a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, who wrote a column about how this issue is playing out in Virginia. Using traffic laws to fund a city government is “a pernicious way of doing business,” he wrote.

Doing a better job with traffic stops

Last year, we experienced an unprecedented level of public demonstrations and protests about policing. In many communities across the country, public officials are looking for ways to change how policing is done. Thankfully, extreme proposals are being rejected, such as the referendum this week to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department without any clear plan to replace it with something better.

In this era of “rethinking” policing, there’s no time like the present for reviewing how your agency conducts traffic stops and how your officers are trained to approach these stops.  One guiding principle here seems clear: Traffic stops should always be firmly rooted in advancing public safety and avoiding unnecessary risks to police officers and community members.

One of the most important purposes of traffic stops is to get impaired or drunk drivers off the roads, both for their own safety and the public at large.

Finally, traffic stops can be a tool for connecting with community members in a positive way. In Minneapolis, police sometimes pull people over for issues like a burned-out headlight, and the officers then surprise the motorists by handing them a voucher for a free repair, not a traffic citation. The repairs are supported by a grant from a nonprofit group headed by former City Council member Don Samuels, a good friend of mine from the days when I worked in Minneapolis.

Initiatives such as these demonstrate that traffic stops can be about public safety, but also about finding opportunities to connect with the community in positive ways.

I hope you have a great fall weekend.