Is it time to take the police out of traffic stops?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Traffic stops are the most common way Americans interact with the police. The Brooklyn Center, Minn., police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was shot by an officer who allegedly confused her gun for her Taser while attempting to arrest him, is the latest reminder of how these interactions can quickly turn deadly.

Police conduct roughly 20 million traffic stops a year, according to data from the Stanford Open Policing Project. Though the majority end without major incident, they occasionally result in officers using deadly force. Last year, 121 people were killed by police after being stopped for a traffic violation. Several of the most controversial law enforcement-related deaths in recent years have resulted from traffic stops — including the shooting of Philando Castille in 2016, which occurred miles away from where Wright was killed.

Wright’s killing has also brought attention to so-called pretextual stops, a practice in which police use a minor violation — such as changing lanes without signaling or a broken taillight — as a pretext for investigating an unrelated crime. The Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual stops are constitutional, but critics say these stops fuel racial bias in policing. Researchers have found that Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be pulled over and up to twice as likely to be searched even though they were “less likely to be carrying drugs, guns or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers.”

Why there’s debate

Traffic stops, in theory, promote public safety by discouraging unsafe driving and providing police an opportunity to identify more serious crimes. But police reform advocates say the high number of killings and evidence of racial bias show that, in practice, the stops do far more harm than good. A number of potential solutions have been proposed to make traffic enforcement safer and less prone to abuse.

Supporters of the movement to defund the police have called on local governments to establish separate traffic agencies staffed by unarmed monitors who would handle noncriminal traffic enforcement duties that currently fall under police purview. These agencies, proponents argue, could keep the streets safe from dangerous drivers while reducing the risk of violent incidents. Some reform advocates say less dramatic policy changes, such as ending pretextual stops and only pulling over those who commit the most dangerous violations, could greatly reduce the number of incidents that escalate to violence. Others say technologies like red-light cameras and speed cameras could take a large share of the human element out of traffic enforcement.

Skeptics warn against enacting widespread changes in response to what they see as a small number of high-profile incidents. They say pretextual stops, an element of what’s known as proactive policing, help police keep drugs and guns off the streets. Others say traffic enforcers would face substantial danger while conducting traffic stops without a means to defend themselves. There are also fears that cameras would be prone to mistakes and contribute to a worrisome level of government surveillance.


Police shouldn’t have any role in traffic enforcement

“Cities should transfer traffic enforcement to non-police. Those responsible for making sure traffic rules are followed should be unarmed and separate from criminal law enforcement and investigations.” — Anna Kurien, Appeal

Pretextual stops should be banned

“If state legislatures and police departments nationwide were to prohibit pretextual vehicle stops … police officers would be blocked from acting on some of their worst instincts. Banning pretextual stops would free officers to focus their attention on serious traffic safety violations or on stops based on more than a hunch of criminality — a better use of police resources.” — Neil Gros, New York Times

Ending enforcement of low-level traffic violations would be good for police-community relations

“It will have a big impact on poor people. It will have big impact on people who drive older cars, and it will have a very big impact on black and Hispanic drivers, because if they knew that they were only going to get pulled over for running through a stop sign or excessive speeding, they will feel much more confident that they could be treated fairly by their police.” — Political scientist Frank Baumgartner to North State Journal

Ending police traffic stops would leave dangerous criminals on the street

“Somewhere along the way to righteous demands for police reform, we have elected to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Proactive policing strategies, which were adopted more than three decades ago, have come under knee-jerk assault, though studies have provided evidence they can prevent or reduce crime.” — James Gagliano, CNN

There’s no reason for armed police officers to enforce minor traffic violations

“The fact that stops over minor motor vehicle infractions do sometimes lead to violence — against police officers and the people they pull over — presents yet another reason to resist putting police and drivers in direct contact over non-risky matters like expired licenses, a broken taillight, or an illegally hung air freshener.” — Elizabeth Nolan Brown, Reason

Police treat every traffic stop as a life-or-death situation

“It’s drilled into police that traffic stop ambushes are routine. They aren’t. They happen, but they’re vanishingly rare. … Those cases are of course tragic and awful. But drumming it into cops to see every stop as his or her potential last has real world consequences.” — Radley Balko, Washington Post

Unarmed traffic enforcers would face enormous danger

“Unarmed traffic officers work well in many other nations, where the people they stop likewise are unarmed. Here, though, there are more deadly weapons than there are people. That unfortunate fact is what puts so many armed police in the position of handling what ought to be administrative, social or health problems.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

Public safety stopped being the purpose behind traffic stops a long time ago

“We have cities and towns across the country using traffic stops in place of taxes, extracting money from people of color and from the poor, and using these stops to terrorize and kill black people. Is there some positive impact that could possibly outweigh this? Are our traffic stops saving lives that would otherwise be lost? Of course they’re not!” — Raphael Orlove, Jalopnik

Fewer police interactions means fewer police shootings

“The simplest way to reduce bad interactions between the police and the public is to reduce the number of interactions.” — Jeremy Pratt, Bangor Daily News

Cameras should handle the majority of traffic enforcement duties

“Speed and red light cameras are a proven, functional technology that make roads safer by slowing drivers down. They’re widely used in other countries and can also enforce parking restrictions like not blocking bus or bike lanes. They’re incredibly effective enforcers of the law. They never need coffee breaks, don’t let their friends or coworkers off easy, and certainly don’t discriminate based on the color of the driver’s skin.” — Aaron Gordon, Vice

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images