The Beginning of the End of Armed Traffic Enforcement
Where the movement to remove police from traffic enforcement stands today and what’s next…
When a police officer killed Daunte Wright in 2021, the encounter began with a traffic stop. The same was true of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Sean Bell, Allan Feliz, and too many others. In fact, more than one in nine people killed by police officers in 2020 began with a traffic stop.
These horrifying outcomes — coupled with ample evidence that the way officers police streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks is marred by racism and largely ineffective — led Transportation Alternatives to call for major reductions in the role of armed police traffic enforcement last year. That report — The Case for Self-Enforcing Streets How Reallocating a Portion of the NYPD Budget to the DOT Can Reduce the Harm of Racial Bias and Improve Safety for All New Yorkers — argued that police traffic enforcement budgets would be better used to redesign streets and install automated safety cameras, reducing the role of armed police officers in traffic safety. Transportation Alternatives also demanded major changes to how traffic crashes are investigated.
Advocates across the city and country echoed and expanded on these calls to action, demanding the decriminalization of low-level offenses, such as jaywalking and open container laws, that are often used to police people, especially people of color and unhoused people, using public space.
The Problem Today
The NYPD remains ineffective at solving the problems of traffic violence and remains an active risk to New Yorkers, especially to communities of color.
To name a few examples: Black New Yorkers are more than twice as likely to be stopped by police. No city in the U.S. pays out more money to settle police misconduct cases than New York City. That includes $352 million in NYPD traffic crashes over the last ten years — more than 20 percent of all settlements.
At the same time, police traffic enforcement remains incongruous with Vision Zero. Anyone with knowledge of the Swedish-born traffic safety philosophy will tell you that traffic enforcement should be a last resort in Vision Zero, only if all street redesigns fail. Mayor Bill de Blasio disregarded this idea when he launched Vision Zero in New York City, and made the NYPD a cornerstone of his program — a tragic mistake that has left countless dangerous streets without a redesign under the false assumption that police enforcement can solve problems that require an engineering solution. Automated enforcement and traffic calming measures — such as protected bike lanes, pinch points, curb extensions, and expanded pedestrian spaces — are proven to reduce speeding, sidewalk cycling, injuries, and all collisions, and do so far more effectively than police enforcement.
The truth is that redesigning streets and using automated enforcement provides universal, unbiased, guaranteed, 24/7 protection to all road users, whereas police enforcement offers biased, occasional, intermittent protection to some road users, entirely at officers’ discretion.
There is also ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of police traffic enforcement. In 2020, police officers caught 94 percent fewer speeding drivers than New York City’s automated speed enforcement cameras — those cameras caught more than 2.3 million speeding drivers in a similar period. According to 311 data, police officers also spend significantly more of their time responding to parking disputes than actual emergencies.
Studies that look at the effects of police traffic enforcement nationwide reflect this inefficacy. One study seeking a correlation between traffic fatalities and police enforcement in 33 states from 2004 to 2016 could find no connection between the prevalence of police traffic enforcement and the number of people killed in traffic crashes.
Traffic fatalities have been skyrocketing since 2018. Today, traffic crashes in New York City kill more people than anytime in the Vision Zero era. And police officers have done comparatively less to solve or respond to these crimes.
While speeding rose citywide in 2020, NYPD officers handed out more than 14,500 fewer speeding summonses than the prior year. While pedestrian fatalities rose citywide, NYPD officers handed out more than 43,000 fewer summons for failing to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist than in 2019. Officers wrote less than half as many summonses for running red lights, illegal turns, texting and cellphone use while driving, or disobeying signs. Last year, the NYPD investigated less than 10 percent of crashes where one or more people were critically injured. Impaired driving arrests have been declining as crashes caused by impaired driving have been rising.
Similarly, while hit-and-run crashes are rising, from 36,000 in 2013 to an average of 45,000 over the last three years, police are doing less to solve them. In recent years, hit-and-run crashes resulted in arrest by the NYPD in about one percent of cases. The rate at which the NYPD is solving these crimes has been declining, with arrests made in less than one percent of hit-and-run crashes in 2020. Hit-and-run drivers were involved in 47 fatal or near-fatal crashes in the first half of 2021, the highest six-month total since the NYPD was required to start publishing hit-and-run data. The rate at which the NYPD cleared those cases was less than half the clearance rate for murders. Only 11 arrests were made.
Despite this inefficiency, in 2020 and 2021, Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council have largely declined to reassess the NYPD’s role in traffic enforcement or reassign NYPD resources to DOT, and otherwise made little progress on TA’s recommendations to reduce the role of police in traffic enforcement. However, there are few bright spots.
In 2020, Council Member Costa Constantinides introduced a bill that would decriminalize jaywalking in New York City. (Current enforcement of this law is not just useless for safety outcomes but wildly racist.)
And in 2021, the New York City Council passed a series of police reform bills. One requires the police department to report data on all traffic stops — who they are pulling over and why, generating real data on whether traffic safety enforcement is about traffic safety or pretextual stops. Another reduces the role of the NYPD in crash investigation in favor of the DOT leading.
Elsewhere, the news is even more hopeful.
Progress Around the U.S.
In just the past year, a number of cities and states have begun to separate traffic safety from the purview of the police department.
Perhaps the best example can be found in the state of Virginia, which decriminalized jaywalking and barred police officers from stopping drivers for a wealth of offenses that have nothing to do with public safety. Now, Virginia police officers can no longer pull drivers over for tinted windows, expired registration, defective brake lights, hanging something from their rearview mirror, or having a loud exhaust pipe. But Virginia is not alone.
In Berkeley, California, police officers are now barred from stopping drivers for minor violations such as expired registration or not wearing a seat belt. Traffic stops are limited to serious safety issues. The City of Berkeley also created a new municipal transportation department, staffed with civilian traffic agents, to take over these traffic stops.
After a report found that a majority of jaywalking summonses written by police officers in Kansas City, Missouri, were written to Black residents — even though Black people make up a minority of the city’s population — Kansas City decided to take the law off the books. The city also repealed a number of other laws that are unrelated to public safety, enforced with racial bias, and used to police people walking and biking, including one that allowed police officers to cite cyclists for having a dirty bike.
Brooklyn Center, Minnesota — where police officers shot and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop for an expired registration sticker and an air freshener on his rear view mirror — has taken similar steps to reduce the role of police in traffic safety. The package of laws passed there prohibits arrests for minor violations that have nothing to do with public safety, and takes traffic stops out of the hands of armed police and puts them in the hands of civilian transportation officials.
Similar bills are being considered by the state of California, the state of Oregon, and the city of Portland, as well as in Seattle, Washington, Denver, Colorado, Austin, Texas, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. — all focused on decriminalizing minor street and sidewalk offenses that don’t threaten public safety, and putting traffic safety in the hands of unarmed civilians. The cities of Minneapolis, Minnesota and Saugerties, New York have also started handing out free repair vouchers instead of summonses for minor equipment violations, such as broken tail lights.
Based on the limited evidence that exists, these initiatives could make streets safer and reduce racially biased police stops. The best test-case comes from Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the police chief halted all pretextual and investigatory traffic stops for non-safety related minor equipment violations in 2013, after one of those stops ended in a fatal police shooting of a driver.
From 2013 to 2016, while the policy was in place, non-moving violations and other investigative stops in Fayetteville plummeted. At the same time, the number of speeding and red light violations caught more than tripled. And streets appeared to become safer for Black drivers: searches of Black drivers fell by half, incidents of use of force declined, and so did complaints against police officers.
While data starts to trickle in from newer, police-free initiatives being rolled out across the country, legal experts and historians are weighing in on how traffic enforcement, sans police officers, could look.
While we have not seen such progress in New York City, a few major steps forward have been made.
Late in 2020, New York State Attorney General Letitia James completed her investigation into the police officer-killing of Allan Feliz, which began with a traffic stop. Among her conclusions was support for the need to reduce the clearly dangerous role that armed police officers play in traffic enforcement.
“The officers here claimed they stopped Mr. Feliz because he allegedly was not wearing a seatbelt. That minor infraction precipitated his interaction with the police that ultimately led to his death,” the Office of the Attorney General wrote in the report.
“We were gravely concerned by some of the actions of the responding offices and issued a number of recommendations that the NYPD should take into account, including removing officers from engaging in any type of routine traffic enforcement activity,” Attorney General James explained at the time of release.
The City of New York’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget included $3.1 million to create a Department of Transportation-centered crash investigation unit, $6.7 million to fund the Streets Master Plan, a massive redesign effort that will move streets in the direction of self-enforcement, and $46.4 million for automated speed safety cameras, a key tool to make street safe without armed police. Each of these initiatives is a step away from the armed policing of traffic.
With a new mayoral administration and 35 new members headed to the City Council, Transportation Alternatives will continue to pursue these goals, as well as watchdogging the transition of crash investigation to the Department of Transportation, and eagerly awaiting the first round of data from the NYPD on their use of traffic stops.
Two recent polls point to the fact that these policy goals are not only a more just course of action, but a popular one.
In one poll, by Data for Progress, found that a majority of likely voters in New York State support eliminating traffic enforcement from the purview of the police and creating a Department of Transportation-supported division of traffic safety. The proposal was supported by a 24-point margin in New York State, and in New York City, a full 70 percent of those polled supported the creation of a non-police Traffic Safety Service, and only 20 percent opposed the idea.
In another poll, conducted by Siena College Research Institute for Transportation Alternatives in December 2020, New Yorkers spoke loud and clear about their feeling that there were better alternatives to armed police traffic enforcement. The survey revealed that a majority (59 percent of New York City voters) believe the City should rely on speed cameras and red light cameras for traffic enforcement as opposed to the police, including 74 percent of Latino voters, 65 percent of Black voters, and 53 percent of white voters. In the same survey, 78 percent, including 73 percent of drivers, supported adding more speed safety cameras in school zones. The message was loudest among Latino respondents: 93 percent want school safety cameras enforcing the speed limit.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest group to support reducing the NYPD’s role in traffic oversight in favor of automated enforcement is the group most likely to be targeted by racially biased enforcement: younger and non-white voters, with 72 percent of voters age 18–34 favoring automated enforcement, and 65 percent of Black voters and 74 percent of Latino voters voters favoring automated enforcement, according to the poll.
Traffic enforcement by armed police officers remains a dangerous, expensive, and ineffective practice marred by racism. There is ample evidence that both reengineering streets and installing unbiased and efficient automated traffic enforcement in tandem is a more effective way to control driver behavior. Now, around the country, a movement is growing to put these better systems in place. As we make our streets safer, we can make them more fair, too.