These yawning disparities, which advocates say have dogged the liberal suburb for decades, are fueling renewed scrutiny over the dangers of what advocates call “driving while Black.” As communities nationwide confront calls to “defund” and “unbundle” the police in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some in Montgomery are asking: Should police even be in charge of traffic enforcement?
Maybe not all of it, lawmakers say.
County council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large) has commissioned a study to figure out whether — and how — Montgomery might be able to move certain traffic enforcement functions out of the police department and into other government agencies.
At least two other lawmakers — including council vice president Tom Hucker (D-District 5), who sits on both the public safety and transportation committees — think that change would be a good idea.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said he is “more than concerned” about the racial inequities in traffic enforcement and will consider the possibility of reallocating resources.
Montgomery appears to be the only jurisdiction in the Washington metro region targeting traffic enforcement in policing, though the District last year moved automated enforcement from police to the transportation department.
County officials say they would start by similarly shifting responsibility for speeding and red light cameras away from the police department — if it’s allowed under state law — then evaluate what other functions could be performed by civilians. They also want to rely more on cameras at traffic stops for driving enforcement, since personal bias is less of a factor in automated systems.
Berkeley City Council in California voted last month to move enforcement of minor traffic violations into a new Department of Transportation. Officials in Cambridge, Mass., and St. Louis Park, Minn., are weighing similar legislation.
“This is the real-world example of ‘defund the police’ that we’re talking about,” said Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor who specializes in police-civilian relations. “In theory, it makes sense, it’s a good idea. But the implementation will be key.”
Since Floyd’s death spawned nationwide protests over police brutality, Montgomery has added nearly $600,000 to its civilian mobile crisis response unit, which officials say will be deployed to address mental health calls instead of police. The council also passed a use-of-force bill that, against the wishes of the police union, bans chokeholds and limits when officers can detain civilians.
Officials have stopped short, however, of major budget or operational changes like those made recently for the police department in Minneapolis and cities along the West Coast. A proposal to eliminate a $3 million program that places armed officers in public high schools failed narrowly in July.
Lawmakers hope shifting traffic enforcement might have more broad-based support.
Increasing automated enforcement of speeding and red light violations could help reduce opportunities for biased policing, and also boost road safety, Riemer said. And having transportation department employees, instead of police, take charge of issuing fines and tickets from the video footage shouldn’t be a heavy lift.
“They’re looking at a camera,” Hucker said.
Pro-transit advocates agree. Paul Goldman, president of the Montgomery-based Action Committee in Transit, wrote in a July letter to officials that they should “replace police traffic enforcement with camera enforcement wherever feasible, to eliminate bias and improve compliance.”
Last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) transferred the city’s automated traffic enforcement program from the police department to the Department of Transportation, saying it would serve the city’s plan to create safer streets and minimize traffic fatalities and injuries.
There has long been a case for increasing automated enforcement as a way to improve traffic safety, Riemer said, and it is now coinciding with the calls to address racial inequity.
The recent report on the police department reveals staggering racial disparities in arrests and use of force, along with highly detailed data on traffic enforcement.
Stops, searches and traffic violations are broken down by race and neighborhood — showing for example, that Black drivers are stopped at a disproportionately higher rate in mostly white Potomac than they are in more diverse White Oak. Countywide, White drivers were stopped more frequently for violations like speeding or beating red lights, while Black drivers were often found in violation for infractions detected after a stop, such as driving without a license or refusing to show it to an officer.
Officials say the differences signal discriminatory policing, though the police union and Police Chief Marcus Jones dispute this.
“There are many factors that need to be considered beyond simple census data to determine if racial bias exists in law enforcement,” Jones said in a statement.
This is not the first time that Montgomery police have come under fire for alleged bias. In 2000, the police department and union signed an agreement with the Department of Justice following an NAACP complaint that officers “engaged in racially discriminatory conduct.” The department was told to regularly document, review and publish demographic data to do with traffic stops, which have since showed consistent disparities along racial lines.
“We’ve had the data for a long time. What we don’t have is any change in policies,” said Cherri Branson, a former council member who was recently appointed to the county’s police advisory committee.
That might change in the coming months as the county explores how to shift automated enforcement away from police. Whether the county would go further by having police officers hand over all traffic citation duties to civilians — as Berkeley has decided — remains to be seen.
There are about 73 officers and 26 civilians in the police department who help enforce traffic laws, the department said. A bulk of the work is done by the traffic division under the department’s field services bureau, which received an operating budget of $38 million in fiscal 2021. Police perform a range of traffic enforcement functions, a spokesperson said, from monitoring automated traffic violations and ensuring pedestrian safety at school zones, to catching drunk drivers and reconstructing collisions.
Not all of these jobs can be done by civilians, Riemer acknowledged. But he thinks automated enforcement is “low-hanging fruit” for a transfer to the department of transportation and could free up officers to focus on other duties like investigating violent crime.
Jones disagreed, adding that the department’s automated enforcement program is “a national model” and questioning whether shifting it away from police would even be legal. Under Maryland state law, only sworn officers are given authority to enforce traffic law.
“It is unclear what, if any, authority could be given under state law to non-police entities to conduct traffic stops,” Jones said.
The feasibility of the proposal may rely in part on whether there is broad support in the community, lawmakers say. Montgomery council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who is hosting the town hall on policing next month, said he wants to raise awareness of the disparities found in the report and the need to rectify them.
“There’s the opportunity for significant momentum here,” said Jawando, who has embraced calls to defund the police. “Whether it’s now or a year from now, people understand that there’s a need to transform our public safety system.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Montgomery County’s police department and union signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in 2000. They signed an agreement, not a consent decree.