Greenlighting non-police alternatives to traffic enforcement and road safety
Though traditional notions of public safety have long regarded law enforcement as the only effective means of keeping communities safe, the current state of policing—marked by abuses of discretion, civil rights violations and increasing rates of brutality—casts doubt on whether police departments can or should be responsible for overseeing public safety measures in their current capacity, if at all. In response to such doubt, there are growing calls to defund the police —the act of redirecting and reinvesting public funds and resources away from traditional policing towards other government agencies and community services—and increasingly larger segments of society who recognize the criminal legal system, of which police officers are the gatekeepers, is fundamentally flawed. As a result, some municipalities are reconsidering their approach to public safety measures and have started to implement non-police alternatives in various areas. One such area includes traffic enforcement.
Traffic stops are the single most common interaction the public has with law enforcement. On a typical day, police officers pull over more than 50,000 drivers; over the course of a typical year, police pull over more than 20 million. These interactions are significant and demand scrutiny because police officers use minor traffic violations as a pretext to initiate discriminatory stops that perpetuate racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Black people are more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, searched and arrested during a traffic stop, and they are more likely to incur greater fines and fees as a result of these stops. Most disturbingly, because police are more likely to kill Black people than any other ethnicity, traffic stops are quite literally a matter of life or death for Black drivers and passengers. Between September 2016 and October 2021, at least 1,500 motorists were killed by police in the course of various vehicle stops; relative to the population, Black motorists were overrepresented among those killed by police. Individually held racial biases, alarmist training about vehicle stops and the racist origins of the entire system of policing have culminated to create an epidemic of needless killings. To remedy the effect of these biases and mitigate the harm caused by police, jurisdictions should relieve police from routine traffic enforcement and in their place, establish unarmed traffic response units to manage road safety.
While ending senseless policing killings should be enough of a reason to implement non-police alternatives to traffic enforcement, the inability of law enforcement personnel to manage their current occupational responsibilities provides additional support for the implementation of non-police alternatives for traffic enforcement and road safety. Currently, law enforcement officials are responsible for a wide range of duties, including responding to crimes, conducting criminal investigations, controlling traffic and enforcing traffic laws, responding to mental health crises, ensuring civilian compliance with local, state and federal laws, providing social services, answering emergency and non-emergency civilian complaints and testifying in court. But poor mental health, exhaustion, burnout and attrition among departments suggest that law enforcement personnel cannot adequately manage the occupational responsibilities currently designated to them. High rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide among police officers further suggest that unless society is prepared to sacrifice the mental and emotional wellbeing of law enforcement personnel, certain occupational demands, including traffic enforcement and road safety, must shift away from police officers and towards non-police alternatives.
In the context of traffic enforcement and road safety specifically, there are many ways to establish non-police, public safety measures. In 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice released a report detailing ways jurisdictions could safely and equitably enforce traffic laws without relying on police. Recommendations included establishing non-police first responder teams committed to traffic and road safety as opposed to criminal law enforcement, implementing voucher programs for minor traffic violations as an alternative to civil enforcement, automating traffic enforcement systems to promote safety and reduce disparities, improving transportation infrastructure and public transportation networks and housing automation systems (such as speed cameras and red-light cameras) outside of law enforcement agencies. Some municipalities have already started to implement variations of some of these recommendations. Currently, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Berkeley, California utilize unarmed civilians, not police officers, to enforce certain traffic violations. In Washington, D.C., the Defund Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Coalition is preparing to propose legislation to limit law enforcement from using certain civil violations for pretextual traffic stops; the coalition is also working towards transferring traffic and vehicle authority from MPD to the city’s department of transportation.
An inability to adequately manage the occupational responsibilities currently assigned to police, unbridled civil rights violations and the commonplace of police brutality disproportionately inflicted upon Black people affirms that society cannot and should not rely on law enforcement personnel for certain public safety measures. To truly improve public safety efforts, municipalities must focus on reducing the scope of police responsibilities and implementing alternative, non-police safety measures in their place, and traffic enforcement is an area in which such alternative measures would certainly result in safer conditions. With life and liberty at stake, alternatives to policing are paramount to creating safer conditions generally, though especially for the Black community.