Traffic Stops

TRAFFIC STOPS illustrationOn Christmas day of 2018, shots rang out in San Jose. It was a drive-by shooting. Witnesses pointed out a white Toyota Camry to the responding police officers. The description was then broadcast over the police radio. Officer Marco Mercado was nearby when he spotted a Toyota Camry matching the description with a license plate reported stolen. A chase ensued when the driver didn’t pull over, ending when the car crashed into a chain-link fence and police surrounded the vehicle. Officers told investigators that the driver had edged backward and forwards, attempting to get free, then hit a patrol car blocking its path. Officers shot at the driver, 24-year-old Jennifer Vasquez 37 times, killing her. Officer Mercado said he had “drawn a line in the sand,” a threshold to shoot if Vasquez did not stop. The police later learned that they had followed the wrong car, Vasquez was not involved in the shooting and the car had been borrowed from a friend.

Traffic stops, like those for mismatched license plates, are seemingly innocuous. They are the most common interaction between police and the public, with more than 50,000 stops a day across America for infractions as minor as changing lanes without signaling or having a broken taillight or dangling air freshener. The increase in traffic stops to where they are today began in the 1980s when rising crime rates and Reagan’s war on drugs created a more controversial approach to policing. These stops have come under scrutiny with the tragic deaths of Patrick Lyoya, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, and many more, the result of traffic stops. 

A New York Times investigation found that “over the last five years… the police killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife or under pursuit for a violent crime.” Studies and reports have repeatedly shown racial bias in who gets stopped and searched. In California, a 2020 report on traffic and pedestrian stops with data from 18 police departments found that 16.5% of those who were subject to a traffic or pedestrian stop were Black, even though they make up just 5.8% of the California population. And “officers searched, detained on the curb or in a patrol car, handcuffed, and removed from vehicles more individuals perceived as Black than individuals perceived as white, even though they stopped more than double the number of individuals perceived as white than individuals perceived as Black.” Black drivers are also “less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race,” according to a study of almost 100 million traffic stops across the country. Berkeley, CA police were also more likely to stop Black drivers than white drivers according to a Center for Policing Equity report and a 2021 city audit of the Berkeley Police Department (BPD).

Yet many, like the union representing LAPD officers, say that traffic stops are a cornerstone of law enforcement, calling reform efforts to restrict traffic stops “reckless policy” that will have a “negative impact on community policing.” They argue that restricting traffic stops would lead to increased crime, more guns on the streets, and emboldened criminals. Police also claim that traffic stops pose a significant risk of harm to the officer, justifying their force. Police training often emphasizes that vehicle stops account for more officer deaths than almost any other form of interaction with civilians. And in traffic stop situations, the car is viewed as a weapon. Conversely, the LAPD’s inspector general found that traffic stops were “of limited effectiveness in identifying evidence of illegal firearms or other serious crimes” and that just 2% of traffic stops resulted in arrests. When Oakland passed reforms to limit stops, the number of stops dropped from 19,000 in 2017 to 7,300 in 2019, and during that same period crime in Oakland actually fell. And regarding the danger posed by traffic stops to the officer, studies say that the threat is exaggerated by misleading numbers and officer-created jeopardy. Although traffic stops account for a significant portion of officer deaths during interactions with civilians, they are also by far the most common type of interaction. Considering this, for an officer, the chance of being murdered at a stop is 1 in 6.5 million by a conservative estimate. A New York Times investigation further found that in many cases, the risk that officers cite as justification for force was in fact created by the officers themselves. By standing in front of fleeing vehicles or reaching into car windows, officers often, and unnecessarily, put themselves in harm’s way. 

These studies, investigations, and reports that have cast doubts on the legitimacy and effectiveness of traffic stops have led to some reform. Individual police chiefs, city councils, district attorneys, and police commissions have made efforts to reduce traffic stops. As early as 2013, now retired Fayetteville, North Carolina Police Chief Harold Medlock directed his officers to focus on more dangerous infractions. The Black residents of Fayetteville had long been raising issues regarding police discrimination against them. Medlock’s orders came after his wife attended a bible study where a black woman had recounted her morning when a Fayetteville officer had pulled her over for no reason. Others like Seattle police chief Adrian Z. Diaz have similarly ordered officers to deprioritize a list of low-level offenses that Diaz deemed a waste of their time. Further, some district attorneys have declined to bring charges based on stops with no justification other than minor infractions. San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin was the first to do this.

In 2015, AB 953 was proposed by Dr. Shirely N. Weber and passed by the California legislature. It required police to record perceived race and ethnicity as well as the reason for the stop. And in July of 2020, the Berkeley City Council considered a proposal to shift the responsibility of conducting traffic stops away from the police and to unarmed public officials. Concerns regarding traffic stops in Berkeley were first raised in 2015 by local community members and activists and in 2018, a task force to study the stops was established. Berkeley has become the first city in the nation to plan to prohibit police officers from conducting traffic stops. The plan calls for a Department of Transportation (BerkDOT) that would manage civilian traffic enforcement. Plans for BerkDot are now being developed by city staff. However, under the current timeline, a final BerkDOT proposal won’t be presented to the Berkeley City Council until June 2024. This is in part because current California state law does not allow for civilian traffic enforcement, but the city is lobbying to change that. Meanwhile, Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to deprioritize “low-level” traffic offenses. The Berkeley Police Department (BPD) has adopted more robust data collection for traffic stops as well as stricter rules regarding searches and a new use-of-force policy. Current BPD policy states “Priority shall be given to enforcement of laws relating to speed, right-of-way, pedestrian and vehicle occupant safety, and driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages and/or drugs.” In other words, Berkeley police will focus on safety-related traffic offenses. And regarding the aforementioned officer-created jeopardy, BPD “employees shall not unnecessarily place themselves into the path of or pronominal to a moving vehicle or bicycle for the purpose of communicating and accomplishing a traffic enforcement detention.” BPD policy also states “At the soonest practical opportunity, employees shall provide an explanation of the circumstances giving rise to the enforcement contact,” similar to the proposed LA policy.

Traffic enforcement has been characterized by racial bias, force, and ineffectiveness. At traffic stops, officers have disproportionately pulled over Black and Brown folks and used inordinate force. These stops have been ineffective, resulting in arrests only a small fraction of the time, and have failed to bring down crime. They have whittled away trust in the police in the communities that bear the brunt of biased policing. The current and coming reform efforts seek to remedy these gaps that have long left people of color treading that invisible line in the sand between life and death. 

–Alex Li


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