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Traffic enforcement would be safer without police. Here’s how it could work.

What if traffic stops could just be about traffic?

A makeshift memorial is seen April 20 in Brooklyn Center, Minn., at the site of the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by a police officer during a traffic stop. (Morry Gash/AP)

The tragic death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright is a vivid reminder that police traffic stops can have deadly consequences for people of color, and Black drivers in particular. Studies show that police disproportionately stop people of color, often for pretextual reasons, and subject them to additional intrusive police activity through questioning, searching, citing, arresting and applying force. Too often these encounters end in violence.

Scholars and advocates have pushed various reforms, including improving officer training, implementing body-worn camera programs and expanding officers’ criminal liability so that prosecutors can hold police accountable. Wright’s death, however, raises serious questions about whether these reforms are enough to stop killings by police from happening again and again during traffic stops. My research suggests that these responses are insufficient to address this violence. Rather, we need to fundamentally rethink how we approach traffic enforcement in the United States.

What would a new system — one without police — look like? As I propose in a forthcoming article in the Stanford Law Review, states and localities could redelegate the bulk of traffic enforcement to newly created “traffic agencies,” staffed by public employees who would conduct in-person traffic stops. (These agencies would also manage speed or red-light camera tickets in localities that use them.)

The promise of this approach is that it not only keeps police officers out of traffic enforcement, but it also keeps traffic agencies and their employees out of the business of police work. Unlike police officers, these traffic monitors would not be vested with powers to detain, search, or arrest. Their authority would also be limited to stopping vehicles for traffic law violations, requesting documentation and issuing traffic tickets. Traffic monitors would not be authorized to run criminal background checks, and traffic agencies would not have access to that information. Their basic training would include violence prevention, verbal de-escalation tactics and self-defense strategies. They would not be armed.

Under this new system, police officers would no longer be able to conduct routine traffic stops based on minor traffic violations (for instance, speeding, failing to maintain a lane, running a red light or failing to obey a traffic device).

Collaboration between traffic monitors and the police would only be allowed in limited circumstances. The traffic monitor could request police assistance only if necessary, when faced with a more serious offense (driving a stolen vehicle, perhaps, or driving while intoxicated) — or if during a routine stop, they encounter a limited subset of non-traffic crimes that involves violence or an imminent threat of it against a person in a stopped vehicle (for instance, kidnapping or aggravated battery or assault). Traffic monitors could not serve as eyes for the police to detect and investigate non-traffic crime.

This would produce a monumental shift in traffic regulation and policing. Under this new approach, unarmed non-police actors would handle the overwhelming majority of traffic stops. Each year, police conduct tens of millions of traffic stops, many of which are based on minor violations. Civilian contact with police would also dramatically decline: The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2018 Police-Public Contact Survey reported that of the 28.9 million people who experienced police-initiated contact in 2018, 18.7 million were drivers and 5.7 million were passengers during a traffic stop. This new approach would also eliminate possibilities for police officers to use minor traffic violations as pretexts to stop vehicles to peruse for evidence of non-traffic crime.

[Cops prevent violence. But they aren’t the only ones who can do it.]

Embracing non-police systems of traffic enforcement is not impossible or unrealistic. Between 1936 and 1992, New Zealand created and maintained a non-police governmental agency that was primarily responsible for the bulk of traffic enforcement until the agency merged with the national police service. In July 2020, the city of Berkeley, Calif., voted in favor of a proposal that would be the first in the country to remove police from conducting traffic stops as part of a comprehensive plan to reimagine public safety. Scholars are also embracing automated traffic enforcement (for instance, speed and red-light cameras) as a means to eliminate harmful encounters between communities of color and police during traffic stops.

One potential concern with the system that I propose is that traffic monitors will likely encounter aggressive and noncompliant drivers at some point, and perhaps experience violence on the job. The myth that traffic stops are exceptionally dangerous settings for police is fueling these concerns. Several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, when rejecting constitutional challenges to police conduct during traffic stops, have stressed the idea that traffic stops are “especially fraught with danger” to officers. Moreover, police academies often show officer trainees videos of extreme cases in which officers were randomly shot and killed during traffic stops, to emphasize that even “routine” work can become deadly if they become complacent on the scene.

The reality is that these danger narratives have little empirical support. Studies show that police officers experience violence during traffic stops at relatively low rates.

In a 2019 study published in the Michigan Law Review, I reviewed a comprehensive data set of thousands of traffic stops that resulted in violence against officers, across more than 200 Florida law enforcement agencies over a 10-year period. The findings revealed that violence against officers was rare, and that the incidents that involved violence were typically low-risk and did not involve weapons. (Usually hands, fists or feet were involved.) Under a conservative estimate, the rate for a felonious killing of an officer during a routine traffic stop was 1 in every 6.5 million stops; the rate for an assault resulting in serious injury to an officer was 1 in every 361,111 stops; and the rate for an assault against officers (whether it results in injury or not) was 1 in every 6,959 stops.

Removing police from traffic enforcement could also eliminate key reasons traffic stops escalate into violence today. My research also found that many routine traffic stops escalated after police invoked their authority beyond asking for basic information, requesting documentation and running a records check. Common examples included ordering motorists out of vehicles, touching or handcuffing drivers or passengers, reaching inside the vehicles, telling drivers or passengers that they were under arrest, or asking for permission to search the vehicle or its occupants. Traffic monitors under the system that I propose would not be vested with this authority. Perhaps if the stakes of a traffic stop were just that — traffic — and not the threat of police intrusion, then even fewer stops would result in conflict.

Such sweeping change would, of course, come up against considerable obstacles: For example, states and municipalities often rely on traffic ticket revenue to fund their budgets, financial incentives that contribute to aggressive and biased traffic enforcement by police. Still, removing police officers — and police work — from routine traffic enforcement would be a big step toward reimagining public safety, decreasing contact between the public and the police while promoting everyone’s welfare on the road.

Read more:

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