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A couple years ago during a cold Minnesota winter, I crashed my car into a school bus. We were traveling perpendicular routes after dropping kids off at the school and met at an unmarked intersection. The bus was on the right and entered first and so, on both counts, had the right of way. I was driving slow — less than 20 mph — but the street was really slippery and I nipped the rear of the bus. I didn't damage the bus at all but, depressingly, I totaled my little Honda Fit.
Not only did the city police show up, but because it was a school bus, they called in the state highway patrol. I received a reckless driving ticket — standard procedure, I was told — but everyone was very nice and even apologetic about it. One of the police officers offered to drive me to my office. They seemed to know this was a stressful situation and did their best to make it less so for me.
It saddens me that this isn't the experience all people have with local law enforcement, yet I'm keenly aware that it is not. I wrote the following essay after the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota, in July of 2016. We seem a long ways from even discussing these problems seriously, let alone addressing the systematic underlying causes. I'm more convinced than ever that ending the routine traffic stop would be a good place to start.
One day, back when I ran my own planning firm, one of my colleagues returned quite agitated from a site visit he was doing. He was slamming things and raising his voice—very out of character. I found out that he had gotten pulled over by a police officer for rolling through a stop sign in a neighboring city.
"The crazy thing is, I had come to a complete stop," I remember him saying.
I completely believed him. For a few months, I had filled in as the interim city administrator for this city while they were searching for a permanent replacement. In that capacity, I had a chance to meet with the police chief. He was a nice enough guy, and certainly well-liked in the community, but his approach made me uncomfortable.
He told me he instructed his officers to be very aggressive in pulling people over. He told me they would look for any reason they could to make a stop and then use that interaction as a stepping-stone of sorts to fish for bigger things. Did the driver sound a little strange? Get her out of the car for a intoxication test. Run her license and check for warrants. Pry around and see if you smell pot (or something like it).
The police chief bragged that they had nailed a lot of really bad people this way—individuals who had warrants or other red flags on their records. Often they would be able to seize the vehicle or other property and sell that at auction, the proceeds of which they got to keep in the department in a process I still don't fully understand. In the short time I was there, whenever he wanted a new piece of equipment and there wasn't money in the budget, he would seek authorization to use the asset forfeiture fund, which was off budget and had an unknown balance (at least to me — and I tried to get access) but which, we were assured, had enough in it to cover the purchase.
So when my colleague said he was pulled over for no reason, I had no problem believing him. I had been pulled over myself in the same city on a few occasions. One instance that I remember was for a taillight being out. I had a mouse chew through the wire and spent hundreds of dollars trying to get it fixed but there was something loose we couldn't isolate. I'm not joking here: if I pounded on the light, it would flicker back on. I told this to the officer and he said he’d let me show him if I would open the trunk so he could see inside. My light back on and my trunk searched, I was allowed to go on my way without a ticket.
I've had a lot — a lot— of interactions with traffic police. Back in my consulting days, there were years when I put 50,000 miles on my car (I worked all over the state). Lots of these miles were late at night in rural areas where the police were just waiting for the lone car to drive through the 55 mph to 30 mph transition on the edge of town—the guarantee ticket zone. I once got a ticket for going 40 mph in a 30 mph. When I drove past the patrol car he rapidly turned around and I responded by immediately pulling over. I received the ticket while sitting at the 55 mph sign.
"Right there the sign says 55, officer," I protested.
"You can't go 55 until you get to the sign," he informed me.
I kept a clip-on tie in my car because I had a long streak where I would not get a ticket if I was wearing a tie. If I didn't have a tie, it seemed like an automatic ticket. So I kept a tie handy. First view of the shiny lights and I'd reach for my tie.
Once, my best friend Mike and I were leaving Moondance Jam, a music festival where our band was the regional host band. I don't drink and he hadn't been drinking either, but traveling 60 mph in a 55 zone (a speed generally slower than traffic) gave the officer the excuse to pull us over. He wanted to know if we had been drinking. "We weren't drinking; we're musicians," Mike helpfully offered from the passenger seat, a line that has become a recurring punchline in our friendship. I got a ticket that time. No tie.
Philando Castile, who was shot dead by a St. Anthony police officer during a routine traffic stop here in Minnesota back on July 6, had been pulled over by police 49 times. As if that wasn't an amazingly high number, keep in mind that he was only 32 years old. This paragraph from the Star Tribune story sounded eerily familiar, both from my experience as a driver and as an interim city administrator:
Castile had been stopped before, when officers spotted him not wearing a seat belt, or when an officer ran his plate number and found his license had been revoked for not paying an earlier fine. Numerous stops came after he didn’t use a turn signal. A few came after he was speeding. He was stopped for rolling through a right turn on a red light, having window tints that were too dark, and at least twice for not having a rear license plate light. He was rarely ticketed for the reason he was stopped.
Now I'm not going to argue that he wasn't breaking the law each of those 49 times. I'm not going to argue that my coworker didn't roll through the stop sign, that I didn't accelerate to 40 before I reached the 55 sign and that I didn't deserve to be pulled over those other times. In other words, I'm not trying to argue whether the police were right or wrong.
There are three points I do want to argue though. First, the things that Philando Castile was pulled over for are things that most of us do on a daily basis. Rolling through a right turn is a good example. Slightly speeding is another (if that upsets you, read my article, "Texting in your risk gap" from 2014). In fact, most of us have stories of being passed by a police officer only to see them pull into a Burger King up the street. Most people feel safe, and in fact are safe, operating a vehicle outside of what is strictly proscribed by law.
This leads me to the second point, which is that the decision to pull someone over or to not pull them over is wholly discretionary. The police routinely sit outside my office where a wide stroad takes a twisty corner (i.e. a perfect speed trap position) because they can pull people over all day, every day. There is one specific scene from one of my favorite all time YouTube videos (Speed Kills Your Pocketbook) where the police officer is running radar and everyone is speeding. If traffic enforcement is about enforcing the law, period, then police would just pull people over continuously. Nonstop. 24/7
Let's pause and note here that traffic stops are one of the most dangerous things a police officer does. As a 2010 article from the Orlando Sentinel explains:
"Traffic stops and domestic violence are the highest-risk calls — you have no idea what you're walking into," said John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association. "If I had to rank them, I'd rank traffic stops first and domestic violence second."
During the past decade, traffic stops have been a leading cause of death for police officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington. From 2000 through 2009, 118 officers were killed conducting traffic stops, compared with 82 handling domestic-violence complaints and 74 during disturbance calls, said Memorial Fund spokesman Steve Groeninger.
This brings me to my third point: If we want to keep police officers safe, and we want to reduce the number of negative interactions with law enforcement, and we desire a country where rules matter, then we need to end the routine traffic stop. We need to approach traffic safety in a way that does not depend on law enforcement for routine matters but instead reserves those empowered with lethal force for truly deviant situations.
But Chuck....what you're advocating for is chaos. No, it's not.
Where law enforcement (or others) identify problematic places in our transportation system, those are engineering problems—design problems. If everyone (or even a high percentage of people) is speeding through a section, then either the speed limit is wrong or the design is wrong. Take your pick. Either way, it's not an issue that enforcement can solve. Watch that entire "Speed Kills Your Pocketbook" video and you'll get a cheeky, but very good, analysis of the relationship between design, speed and enforcement. Here's the operative quote from a report cited in the video (4:23):
The majority of motorists drive at a speed they consider reasonable and safe for road, traffic and environmental conditions. Posted limits which are set higher or lower than dictated by roadway and traffic conditions are ignored by the majority of drivers.
This is how you get laws that are ignored by everyone and police who pull people over at their discretion. It's a bad situation that damages the credibility of all involved.
As we've said many times before, if people are driving faster than we want them to, then we need to redesign that stretch of road/street to get the outcome we want.
We should not be putting police officers in the dangerous position of having to make traffic stops that, at the end of the day, don't change driver behavior.
There are some of you who want to live in a police state where enforcement is the mechanism we rely on to address traffic issues. I'll just respond with the observation that you are likely part of a demographic that doesn't get pulled over often (and, as I've tried to demonstrate here, it's not because you are always following the law). Furthermore, from my experience, the more aggressively traffic laws are enforced on the middle class, the more complaining and resentment there is. I've seen a police chief reprimanded for parking patrol cars down the street from the bar and then pulling over everyone who broke any small law around closing time. That’s very effective for DUI enforcement, but it’s not good for public relations.
So let's put the onus on engineers, urban designers and others (because engineers should not be designing streets) for speeding, but what about the other infractions? What about all those people rolling through stop signs, driving with a tail light out or doing other non-heinous crimes that currently present either (a) an opportunity for law enforcement officers to fish for a big catch or (b) the most dangerous thing a police officer must do, depending on your point of view?
If we acknowledge that getting pulled over for failing to stop fully at a stop sign is not likely to reduce the number of people rolling through stops by more than one (and then, only temporarily), I think technology can help us out. We can equip traffic patrol cars with cameras and computers (most already have them). When an officer observes one of these non-life-threatening infractions, they press a button to save the last thirty seconds of film to a file and continue to record until they've documented the license plate. Then that gets mailed in and justice can be served (at volume even) without endangering a single police officer (or black man).
What if I'm driving someone else's car? The same thing as if I park someone else's car illegally: We work it out.
Of course, all of these incidents should also be tracked. If there is a place where people are predisposed to roll through red lights, I would haul my design team out there to figure out why. And if I'm the mayor or city engineer, I’d do the same thing every time there is a collision with a biker or person walking or any time a collision results in hospitalization. We have the National Transportation Safety Board for airline crashes which often leads to redesigning entire planes based on what we find, yet if we can blame speeding for any automobile crash, we tend to check the box and move on. That’s not good enough.
I'm sick of seeing people killed during routine traffic stops, events that are as unnecessary as they are unhelpful. There are better ways for us to handle these situations. Let's end the traffic stop.
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For more on this topic:
- Read Chuck Marohn's follow-up essay and response to comments.
- Listen to our podcast episode on ending traffic stops.
- Read Strong Towns contributor Sara Joy Proppe's response to the shooting of Philando Castille.
(Top photo from Wikipedia)