More Thoughts on Ending Traffic Stops

Photo by  Ildar Sagdejev

There has been a lot of reaction to Monday's article -- It's time to end the routine traffic stop -- and I'd like to address a bit of it here. I'll start by addressing the, statistically speaking, 70% of you who comment before reading the actual article: I'm not suggesting traffic laws not be enforced, just that they not be enforced through the traffic stop. It is the interaction between police officer and driver -- something an executive for a national police organization called "the highest-risk call" for officers -- that I'm seeking to diminish through design and technology.

I'm also not advocating for ubiquitous cameras or the revenue-enhancement that comes from that kind of enforcement, although I will hypothesize that our tolerance for such things would diminish if they were administered in affluent neighborhoods with as much vigor as they are at random speed trap zones. Any type of automated ticketing -- whether by a camera or by an officer with a camera and computer -- has to be tied to an ethic of redesigning areas where the outcomes are consistently dangerous. That we don't routinely do this lends credence to those who argue that traffic enforcement is more about revenue/power than actual safety (and for the record, I am one of those who make that argument).

There are also those handful of people who have suggested others should simply follow the law like they always do and all will be well. To them I say: You are not following all traffic laws. You are not. For a variety of reasons, you are just not being pulled over when you break them.

What I really want to focus on today, however, is the detailed response that a commenter named, Bryan, made to me that has, thus far, gone unanswered (by me). I know many of you were upset by Bryan's comments. I am not. While we disagree, I don't think his point of view comes from a place of ignorance or apathy. For that reason, I'm going to treat his comment to me with respect.

His response was in three parts. Here's the first:

Point one: You say you've had a lot of contact with the police and later say that if people want a police state we must not be in a certain demographic. It was clear you were alluding to your perception of racism. 
Logically you can't have that both ways. Have you been racially profiled? Probably not while in Breezy Point because.... well it's lily white and from your picture you appear to be... well lily white.

I have had a lot of contact with police. I do believe I was profiled. People driving through certain places at certain times are often subjected to increased enforcement pressure because they fit that time/place profile. The profiling I experienced wasn't racial, of course, but I can confidently say that during normal business hours few people were ever pulled over for speeding in the transition zone on the edge of town, but at closing time for bars, it's a good place to make a proactive (and defensible) traffic stop.

Why? Because the vast majority of people driving that stretch exceed the speed limit; everyone knows it and nobody does anything to address it. So increased traffic stops at closing time are not an attempt to enforce a law (we don't enforce that law during during the daylight hours even through there are way more people breaking it). It's simply a proactive way to intervene with normal business -- to initiate contact -- in order to determine if something else illegal is going on. 

The speed limits set in many places are arbitrary, don’t really reflect design reality and — most importantly — don’t correlate with safety.

The speed limits set in many (perhaps most, urban) places are arbitrary, don't really reflect design reality and -- most importantly -- don't correlate with safety.

Yes, I'm Caucasian. When I was younger (didn't drive a nice car), I was pulled over more often.  When I was driving in more questionable parts of town, I was more prone to being pulled over. If I'm someone -- racial minority or not -- living in a poor neighborhood and driving a run down vehicle, I'm pretty confident the guy pulling out of his gated subdivision with a tail light out on his Lexus isn't going to get pulled over like I am.

One man's proactive policing is another man's harassment. I feel like both sides can be right here, from their perspective, so let's find a different way to keep people safe.

Here's Bryan's second part:

Point two: You've written about not getting into a one size fits all mindset. What works in one town or neighborhood might not be appropriate for another is what I have learned from your writings. Then you go and do just that here.
Can you fix a few minor problems through design and tech in Breezy Point? Sure you can. And as usual I would love to hear about how you might expand that to other neighborhoods. That has nothing to do with investigatory stops and fixing drug problems the same way in a poor drug filled neighborhood. If we were to actually have a discussion on policing in poor neighborhoods we would probably agree more than we disagree and it sure as heck would be a lot more complex than, the police pull people over and shoot them.
If we were to have a discussion on police training for shoot/don't shoot you would be quite enlightened by the state of affairs (or you might just be frightened from both sides of the affairs). But make no mistake about it what you propose will make things worse not better. And by worse I mean more poor people will die.

I think Bryan is stuck in a binary world: We have some bad people in rough neighborhoods (agree) and need to protect the good people who are there (agree). To do this, we must do investigatory stops (disagree). To suggest that we either have this tool in the law enforcement toolbox or the bad guys win is incomplete, at best.

I'm going to draw a (dangerous and potentially inflammatory) analogy to the use of drones against terrorists. One thing that we hear from the pro-drone side is that it is the most effective way to take out terrorists without risking American lives. I believe that is true. One thing we hear from the anti-drone side is that the use of drones radicalizes local populations against us; the fear of becoming collateral damage in a random strike from the air is an oppression that breeds resentment. I believe that is also true.

This is not a binary argument where one view is right and one is wrong. The sophisticated question is more along the lines of: Does the positive impact of a drone strike  on reducing terrorism justify the increased resentment and potential for inducement of more terrorists? If we're talking Osama Bin Laden in 2002, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we're talking some mid-level operative in 2016, it's a much tougher call. 

Randomly enforcing traffic laws that are routinely ignored in other times and places as a pretext to initiate contact with high crime populations is unnecessarily dangerous for all involved... I also strongly suspect it does not reduce crime, although it creates the illusion of fighting crime.

When drone bombings become a routine and accepted practice that is the general policy of the country, then we can pretty much count on a build up of resentment and ill will in the places we randomly bomb. And that's what we've seen (under presidents of both parties, I'll note).

To bring it back to Bryan's question: When investigatory stops become a routine and accepted practice that is the general policy of the country, then we can pretty much count on a build up of resentment and ill will in the places where we randomly enforce traffic laws. And that's what we've seen.

I don't believe there is only one effective method to fight terrorism and I don't believe there is only one effective method to address neighborhood crime. Randomly enforcing traffic laws that are routinely ignored in other times and places (because they are not well-correlated to actual safety) as a pretext to initiate contact with high crime populations is unnecessarily dangerous for all involved. In addition to breeding resentment, I also strongly suspect it does not reduce crime, although it creates the illusion of fighting crime.

I'll also push back here on the straw man argument of "police pull people over and shoot them" and "police training for shoot/don't shoot" because I did not make the opposite argument and it's not relevant to the argument I'm making. What I'm arguing is that this contact is not beneficial or necessary and, from a design and engineering standpoint, it's rather ridiculous. If we're worried about traffic safety, let's deal with that. If we're worried about catching bad guys, let's deal with that. Let's stop using the terrible design of our cities as a random pretext and, instead, be proactive about fixing the design.

Here's the third part of Bryan's argument:

Point three: We don't need to guess about your idea of saving lives in the poor black neighborhoods. Being in law enforcement is to be at the political whim of people who have or want power. About every ten years the mainstream media leads a change at the prompting of someone (it varies who that someone is). Crime goes up, "We need law and order, we love the cops". Crime goes down, "Why are we paying for all these cops?" Crime goes up. Who pays for that? The poor.
How many traffic stops do you think occur in Ferguson and many other poor neighborhoods now? Almost none. Very few officers get in trouble for what they didn't do. What is the outcome over time with that? You guessed it, rising crime rates with every honest hard working person in that poor neighborhood paying the price.
But don't worry poor people tend to kill each other. Not a problem for Breezy where the rich play golf. Not only does one size not fit all, but your being pissed off about getting a ticket and trying to relate that to traffic stops in the poor area of town leads directly to more poor people dying.
When people like you and I go into poor neighborhoods of black or hispanic majority we hear quotes such as, "Some things never change", "That's just the way it is" and most importantly, "There's KKK racism which is easy to deal with and systemic racism with isn't."
I look forward to a follow up on how you will use design to overcome human's natural opposition to being controlled. Never seen a high tech solution that will work for the poor. Never saw a high tech solution to stop Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol and/or Marijuana. And the list could go on and on.

I have to say that I'm rather confused by this third point (points??). This feels like a very narrow rant with a lot of background not brought forward. Of course, the whims of politicians can be frustrating (so maybe a dictatorship?). Obviously, tough-on-crime candidates like to whip the electorate into a frenzy of fear and we voters, predictably, fall for it now and then.

I'm not sure that I buy the theory that police officers avoid poor neighborhoods in Ferguson but, if so, I don't see how that invalidates my core argument in any way. Again, it seems to be a suggestion that this type of contact -- made possible by the random enforcement of non-life-threatening traffic laws -- is necessary to keep neighborhoods safe. I don't buy the binary nature of that argument.

If it’s unsafe to drive at the speed people are driving, create some edge friction in the design until we slow things down to where 85% of drivers are operating safely. Then deploy the police force on the deviants.

And I'm totally lost on the two points about my thoughts leading to poor people dying and then systematic racism. Sorry. :(

I am intrigued by the suggestion of "a high tech solution that will work for the poor." I, of course, have suggested no such thing. What I've suggested are two things.

First, where we have speeding and other infractions that would be considered moving violations, our inclination should be to look at the design of the street/road. Most people are not deviants by nature, so when most people in a stretch are breaking the law, that's a bad law. Change it. For example, if it's unsafe to drive at the speed people are driving, create some edge friction in the design until we slow things down to where 85% of drivers are operating safely. Then deploy the police force on the deviants. Otherwise, traffic stops are simply random events completely not correlated with public safety.

Second, for non-moving violations (tail light out, not wearing a seat belt, etc...) and other things that are far, far from life-threatening, police departments should move to a more automated system of ticketing and mailing that fine so that the laws are properly enforced, people are notified when they are breaking the law and we avoid the unnecessary contact that our current policing approach seeks to initiate through traffic laws.

I'll note that, if everyone driving on a street with a tail light out or some other minor infraction were to receive an automated ticket -- including the Lexus along with the rusty Dodge -- that law would quickly be changed. We'll tolerate red light cameras when they catch tourists and those passing through, and we'll tolerate routine traffic stops when they happen in poor neighborhoods (how else do you handle those people) but when our enforcement of traffic laws switches from random and discretionary to ubiquitous, the affluent will rid us of most of these nuisances. And for good reason.

Bryan also added this point at the end, which is worth addressing:

Your entire early writing was on how city planners just didn't look at the problem in the correct way. I am simply accusing you of becoming one of them when you are confronting something that you obviously don't know much about. When you get out of your lane it not only hurts other people physically but it hurts people's faith in the good things you are educating us about.

I've long bristled at this "get out of your lane" argument, which I have gotten since the very early days of this site. Chuck, stick to bashing engineers and planners and stop making yourself look stupid by talking about things you don't understand. This is such a weak, lame argument and I'm going to restate it to show just how:

Chuck, I love when you say things to your own closed professions that are obvious to me -- a laymen outsider -- because it validates what I see as obvious but what those deep in the weeds fail to grasp, but HOW DARE YOU comment in any way on my profession because you, sir, are not an expert on what I do and cannot begin to grasp the vast complexities I face.

By the way, I read over 80 books a year but have not read more than a few books on planning or engineering for a decade or more. If you like what I'm saying about planning and engineering, understand that you are responding to a synthesis of many ideas, very few from those realms. If I'm wrong about something, teach me, but don't discount me or anyone else you think lacks the expertise to have a valid opinion. It makes you look defensive and, actually, kind of ignorant.

Listen to our podcast episode on ending traffic stops.

(Top photo by Thomas R Machnitzki)

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