State your case: Do we need traffic cops?
Both academics and cities are advocating for decoupling traffic enforcement from the police — our experts debate the pros and cons
Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.
The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.
The issue: In an upcoming paper titled “Traffic Without the Police,” scheduled for publication in a 2021 issue of Stanford Law Review, University of Arkansas law professor Jordan Blair Woods writes that traffic stops “are the most frequent interaction between police and civilians today, and are a persistent source of racial and economic injustice.” In his paper, available in full below, he proposes a framework for traffic enforcement that decouples traffic enforcement from the police. Some of the changes Woods proposes include officers no longer being able to conduct traffic stops based on minor traffic violations or pretextual vehicle stops based on minor traffic violations. He also advocates for the creation of traffic monitors whose authority would be limited to initiating traffic stops for traffic law violations, requesting documentation and issuing traffic citations.
The issue has received nationwide attention this year. In July 2020, the city of Berkeley announced it would move forward with a proposal to remove police from traffic enforcement duties. In September 2020, New York’s attorney general recommended the NYPD get out of the business of routine traffic enforcement.
In this State Your Case, our columnists debate the question: Should the police be involved in traffic enforcement?
Jim Dudley: The short answer is “No.” Police are not essential in ensuring traffic compliance.
Of course, you need some kind of traffic enforcement, or the streets would be bedlam and traffic collisions, injuries and fatalities would surely rise dramatically. Technology and government regulations could be employed to keep chronic violators in check, as long as they applied to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, financial or social status.
Red-light violations and speed-related technology can be easily deployed to catch offenders without bias. Systems and automated license plate readers (ALPRs) could be adopted for other violations such as stop sign violations and erratic driving. That would leave officers free to do other police work and be less subjected to harsh criticism by social justice advocates and the press.
New cars are already coming out with self-driving or self-parking systems and can be outfitted with self-reporting of violations and fitted with DUI-resistant systems. Some states already require equipment checks that then issue windshield stickers showing compliance.
Non-sworn Traffic Regulation Department (TRD) employees can calibrate the technology to limit court appeals and process follow-up of violators. Violators can accumulate a certain number of violations before the TRD puts in place vehicle disabling devices and impounds them.
Joel Shults: Many years ago I was doing military duty in Honduras escorting convoys. We were not allowed to operate after daylight hours, so during dusk, we pulled over to the side of the mountain road to bivouac until sunrise. On my watch during the middle of the night, I heard a whooshing sound. A bus with one dim light and no tail lights was careering down the mountain highway. During the daylight hours, I would see rusted vehicles that had been pushed to the side of the road after crashes. This was the scene of a community without traffic enforcement!
Traffic crashes claimed over 38,000 lives and caused 4.4 million injuries in 2019 according to the National Safety Council, so traffic enforcement is hardly an optional activity for law enforcement. Police critics will claim that vehicle stops for minor traffic infractions only exist as a pretext to interrogate the vehicle’s occupants. They also claim that officer discretion in traffic enforcement gives birth to racist practices. What truth may exist in these claims is a solvable issue without tossing this important law enforcement function out the window.
Jim Dudley: In reality, there is not a real issue with officers enforcing traffic laws. No one is ever happy being pulled over by a traffic cop. My blood pressure raises a bit when I see a cruiser come up behind me on the highway, and I automatically check my speed to see if I’m anywhere near the limit.
But as you say, Joel, the police critics will never be satisfied. I cannot think of any advocate groups who appreciate the work of traffic enforcement officers. Thank you, officer, for the ticket. I’m sure I will use this to modify my poor driving habits in the future. You really are saving lives by doing what you do...said no one, ever.
Every time an officer turns on the flashing lights, activates their siren and increases their speed to overtake an offender, they are taking a risk. There are inherent risks an officer takes with every police pursuit. Each year, the FBI posts Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) statistics. Among the traffic-related deaths in 2019, 41 officers who were accidentally killed died in a variety of scenarios:
- 19 died as a result of motor vehicle crashes (18 while operating cars, SUVs, trucks, or vans; 1 while operating an ATV or a motorcycle);
- 16 were pedestrian officers struck by vehicles;
- Another 6 were killed intentionally, during traffic stops.
Maybe it is time to have the traffic officers pull to the side of the road and let the advocates against poor driving that contributes to road deaths each year like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) or Vision Zero, which has a goal of zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, take a turn behind the wheel and at the podium.
Joel Shults: Certainly, the universal reaction to those flashing lights in the rearview mirror is not, “Yay, the officers are certainly busy protecting us today!” Even so, traffic contacts handled well can be a positive interaction. In fact, it is the most likely opportunity that police have to engage with the public and show professionalism.
We all know that killers, burglars and smugglers drive cars. They also speed, have broken tail lights and occasionally crash. The opportunity to lawfully interact with these offenders during traffic contacts yields the solution to many criminal offenses and recovery of stolen property and contraband. Making the streets and highways a safe haven from law enforcement contacts is a license to freely operate a variety of criminal enterprises and activities. That doesn’t even include the 1.5 million drunk and drugged driving arrests that were made just last year.
Freedom of movement is a constitutional right, but operating a metal beast on public roadways has always been a highly regulated privilege. Courts make decisions on the appropriateness of traffic stops every day. That means that law enforcement conduct in enforcing traffic laws is also highly regulated to protect the traveling public from unwarranted police intrusion. Drivers are protected both from other badly behaved drivers and from unlawful stops. To cease enforcement would cost dollars and lives.
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Police1 readers respond
As a probation officer in Detroit many years ago, I would secure warrants for many of my probationers…and these were some bad guys. Many of them wound up back behind bars because of police traffic stops and subsequent checks for warrants. The impulsivity, aggressiveness and carelessness of these folks made them lousy drivers. Nobody likes to be pulled over. However, this is a minor inconvenience compared to the number of dangerous individuals taken off the streets because of bad driving or risky equipment.
The recent Police1 reader poll shows traffic stops remain a hot topic. I expected the results to be more than 50% on the “yes” side.
Jim Dudley did a good job of identifying both the driver and the officer’s side of a stop and especially the increase of risk to the officer when the “stop” requires some level of pursuit and all of the dangers associated with being out of a vehicle and exposed on the side of the road during the stop.
I think that is probably only part of the consideration for the responses of those who reported they believed jurisdictions should reduce stops for minor infractions. But I have to believe that part of the concern leading to those responses is also the increased likelihood over the past few decades that the driver armed.
For the officer riding solo, and especially when the backup is a distance away if available at all, the risk factor increases.
But with the use of technology and upgraded cameras on squad cars, changes in statutes and ordinances to put the infraction on the owner of the vehicle rather than the driver, and a few tweaks to training and procedures, I could see where it would be possible for an officer to run a minor violation to determine any concerns beyond the infraction, exercise discretion as to whether to make a stop (example a clear danger for the driver or others) and take a photo of the infraction that included the time, date and location (all possible upgrades for dash cam technology). The officer completes a short report at some point that is processed into an infraction delivered to the owner of the vehicle with the photo.
And this solution won’t necessarily reduce the primary reason police were pushed into this task in the first place, the revenue jurisdictions receive from traffic enforcement.
— Tom Higgins, Professor of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies, Illinois Central College
I spent five years as a state trooper and nine years currently as a federal patrol officer with a K-9. The traffic stop is the most useful tool in law enforcement in my eyes because of the number of narcotics, stolen vehicles/weapons that are seized and drivers with warrants stopped. A department that emphasizes unbiased policing and teaches officers proper criminal profiling and how to articulate it will stay free of many issues brought up in the article. Violations in biased policing should be heavily punished/fired.
The public has the inherent right to not answer questions posed by officers on traffic stops, as well as denying consent to be searched. The public, too, requests extra patrols due to speeders/reckless driving, as well as contacts law enforcement to report these offenses in progress. It’s nice for the public to call in a dangerous driver and there sits an officer ready to respond because they are conducting active traffic enforcement in the area.
Lastly, I have investigated, as many officers do daily, serious injury/fatality accidents caused by violations of traffic law. I have also seen what proactive traffic enforcement does in cutting down high accident rates in a particular area/county.
— AR officer
I occasionally worked at an office building in a major metro. The local PD would run a traffic trap just outside the office with a plainclothes officer standing a few steps into the crosswalk. Vehicles that failed to yield for the pedestrian were pulled over within a couple of blocks by a motor officer who was just out of sight of the driver, but able to view the pedestrian in the crosswalk. This traffic enforcement activity usually lasted for several hours. The revenue from fines surely didn’t offset the cost of running the traffic trap and the activity could likely be performed more effectively and without bias by an ALPR, as Chief Dudley describes in the article.
— A reader in Wisconsin
About the authors
James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He has served as the DC of Special Operations and Liaison to the Department of Emergency Management where he served as Event and Incident Commander for a variety of incidents, operations and emergencies. He has a master’s degree in Criminology and Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine. He is currently a member of the Criminal Justice faculty at San Francisco State University, consults on organizational assessments for LE agencies and co-hosts the Policing Matters podcast for Police1.
Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on several advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.