In April, a Minnesota police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, during a traffic stop, supposedly after mistaking her gun for a Taser. That same week, a Virginia police officer was fired after the release of body camera footage that showed him pepper-spraying and handcuffing a black Army lieutenant who had the temerity to ask why he was being pulled over.
Incidents like those, along with the high-profile deaths of motorists such as Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, underline the dangers of asking armed police officers to enforce traffic laws. Many reformers argue that the task should instead be assigned to unarmed civilians.
“One-third of police-civilian contacts in our country happen through traffic stops,” UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz noted in a 2018 Suffolk University Law Review article. “Eleven percent of police killings nationwide in 2015 occurred following traffic stops, and people killed following traffic stops are disproportionately likely to be unarmed.”
This situation is largely a result of Supreme Court decisions that have weakened Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and expanded law enforcement’s power to detain and search drivers. With the Court’s blessing, civil traffic enforcement has become a pretext for criminal investigations aimed at discovering contraband and seizable cash.
Traffic stops are also high-stress situations for officers. Police academies, “warrior mentality” courses, and use-of-force simulators all drill into officers’ brains the fear that they could be killed in a split second during a traffic stop. Such killings do occur, but they’re rare, happening in one out of 6.5 million traffic stops, according to a 2019 analysis by University of Arkansas law professor Jordan Blair Woods.
What would American policing look like if cops stopped issuing tickets to speeders and jerks? We may soon see. Berkeley, California, last summer approved police reforms that included reassigning traffic enforcement to a newly created Department of Transportation.
After last September’s fatal shooting of Allan Feliz, who was initially pulled over for a seat belt violation, New York Attorney General Letitia James likewise recommended that the New York Police Department step away from traffic enforcement. James’ office found that the cops involved in the traffic stop were not criminally culpable for the shooting. But it concluded that the incident was avoidable, noting that the “vast majority of traffic stops—including this one—do not involve criminal conduct.”
A traffic ticket should be a mundane, mildly irritating experience for all parties involved, not a life-or-death moment. Returning traffic enforcement and criminal law enforcement to their proper spheres could put both police and drivers at ease.
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