Routine Traffic Stops Should Not Be Used to Fight Violent Crime

“I’ll bet we can watch him drive for five minutes and pick out a traffic infraction.”

Those were the words of a Louisville police officer speaking to a resident about her son. The young man had been pulled over for an improper turn, which led to a lengthy episode in which he was ordered from his car, frisked, and then handcuffed while his (turned out to be mom’s) car was searched and, to a degree, dismantled.

There is a lot of outrage about this video. It’s a case study in psychology, and not a flattering one. But I’m not going to focus on that. Instead, I want to return to a topic I’ve written and spoken extensively about: the routine traffic stop.

Back in 2016, I wrote a column calling for an end to the routine traffic stop. My arguments were simple. First, routine traffic stops are very dangerous for police officers. Second, they have little to do with traffic safety. And, third, the pretext for most routine traffic stops—that someone has committed a traffic infraction—is arbitrary, disingenuous, and ripe for all the worst kinds of abuse.

As I wrote in a follow up piece, also from 2016:

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.

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.

The Louisville incident bolsters – in high fidelity – every point I made in those two articles. I watched this entire video and was in shock at how brutally honest the officers were about who they were, what they were doing, and why: this stuff is usually not said as directly in mixed company.

At one point, the young man’s mom shows up and one of the officers goes over to speak with her. This is at minute 21:23 of the video:

Mom: “My whole thing is, if it’s a wrong turn, give him a ticket.”

Officer: “That’s not what we’re out here for. We are a violent crimes unit.”

There’s some back and forth between the two where they talk past each other—a mom upset with how her kid being treated and an officer wanting to explain their broader mission—when, at minute 22:04, the officer explains that this has nothing to do with traffic safety.

Officer: “We are a violent crimes unit. We don’t pick and choose where we work. We are told by our commanders, by the chief’s office, where to patrol, and all that is based off of criminal violence statistics. The 18th Street corridor, California Park, Victory Park, Park Hill, these are all neighborhoods that we patrol and we’re told to go to these areas and patrol. That’s why we’re here.”

Mom: “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Then, the officer—as if this should make perfect sense to everyone—elaborates on how traffic stops are used merely as a pretext to pull people over.

Officer: “One of the aspects of what we do is we focus on traffic stops. Right now, this city has been plagued by gun….”

Mom (interrupting): “I don’t want the history. I just want to know why my son….”

At this point she is interrupted and some more back-and-forth takes place. The officer explains why traffic stops are used as a pretext to pull people over. Th mom is not buying the traffic stop pretext, specifically as it relates to her handcuffed kid.

“I don’t believe it,” she says. The officer pushes back. This is where, at minute 23:08, the real gap in understanding comes in.

Officer: “So, it was a traffic infraction he was stopped for. I wasn’t here, but I asked the detective before I talked to you, ‘Why did you all stop him?’ and they said he did an improper turn.”

Mom: “I don’t believe that.”

Officer: “You don’t believe it. You weren’t here. You didn’t see it.”

Mom: “You believe your guy and I believe my son.”

And here’s the critical exchange:

Officer: “Has your son ever made a traffic infraction, do you think?”

Mom (emphatic): “No, he has not.”

Officer: “I’ll bet we can watch him drive for five minutes and pick out a traffic infraction.”

Mom: “I’ll bet you could.”

There is some back and forth on how hard it is to find a traffic violation, and then the mom makes a statement that provides insight on her perspective.

Officer: “I’m sure you could watch and pick out [a traffic infraction].”

Mom: “No, you could pick one out. You could make one. I could do a U-turn and you could say I did it too wide.”

How We Should Deal With Traffic Infractions That Don’t Create Any Imminent Danger

Let’s assume good intentions by both sides. These two people are speaking past each other. Neither is wrong, but they are not talking about the same thing.

When the mom says that her son doesn’t violate traffic laws, she means that her son doesn’t drive recklessly. The young man isn’t speeding. He’s not making reckless turns. He’s not driving under the influence. He’s going about his business as a responsible member of society. To the extent that the dash cam shows his driving, she is correct.

The bar for traffic infractions is so low that a violent crimes unit can use traffic laws to pull over and search whomever they want, whenever they want.

When the officer tells her that her son committed a traffic infraction, he is also correct. It was hard to tell from the dash cam the exact configuration of the street the young man turned onto, but it looked like there was a right lane (although it looked narrower than the left lane, more like a shoulder). If there was a right lane, he should have pulled into it and then used his signal to shift to the left lane. So, the officer is correct in that, in the narrow sense of the term, that was a traffic infraction.

I’m going to pause here and reiterate an important point that I made in my last two columns. Turning into the incorrect lane here—assuming that is what happened—created no danger to anyone. This is not like speeding, aggressive acceleration, driving under the influence, or anything that would potentially imperil someone’s life. If there was any legitimate traffic reason for a stop here, it is to have a learning moment with a young man. From strictly a traffic enforcement standpoint, this kind of infraction is a total waste of resources.

When the mom says that the officer could “make up” a traffic infraction, I think (hope) she is technically incorrect. In the age of dash and body cams, the police would have to find something. It’s just that the bar for traffic infractions is so low—and the hunting environment so target-rich—that a violent crimes unit can use traffic laws to pull over and search whomever they want, whenever they want.

Everyone who drives has made a mistake in traffic. Ideally, those mistakes become learning moments. I once drove right through a stop sign mounted on a school bus, one of the worst driving infractions one can commit. I was seventeen at the time. I was approaching the bus, which happened to be driven by my grandfather, and instead of minding what I was doing and seeing the stop sign, I was concentrating on vigorously waving at my grandfather that I blew right through it. I got a phone call that evening and was scolded harshly, a call that ended in tears on both ends. It was a learning moment my grandfather did not let pass. I’m fortunate to have someone who loved me in that way.

In my 2016 article, I propose a method where traffic infractions like the one that predicated the Louisville stop become learning moments. In the age of dash cams, police can snap a license plate ID, send a ticket (or gentle warning), along with a link to the video showing the non-life-threatening (yet illegal) act of the driver. If we’re worried about traffic safety—I am, and you should be too—then this would be a helpful system.

And because I care about traffic safety, when the GPS coordinates associated with traffic infractions show a cluster of violations in the same spot, we need to get our engineers and urban designers out there to make some changes to the site. Our streets should be designed to be intuitively safe. If people are repeatedly doing unsafe things in a specific place, that indicates a design issue. The answer is to fix the design.

Our streets should be designed to be intuitively safe. If people are repeatedly doing unsafe things in a specific place, that indicates a design issue. The answer is to fix the design.

And because tens of thousands of people die in automobile collisions each year, and many more people—inside and outside of vehicles—are maimed and crippled through auto crashes, I want traffic enforcement taken seriously. I want it to focus on serious deviants: those operating a vehicle in ways that are threatening. And I want it done by traffic police, not by a violent crimes unit using traffic law as a pretext for a fishing expedition.

As for reducing violent crimes, this is outside of my area of expertise, but I’m going to offer a couple of (what seem to me like) obvious thoughts. In any neighborhood, lawful residents are the greatest allies of any law enforcement effort. Having good relations with those people inclined to follow the law and lead upright lives seems a prerequisite for isolating the unlawful element in a struggling neighborhood.

Creating an environment of trust between law enforcement and the law-abiding residents of a neighborhood seems like a prerequisite to long-term success. Police that can’t be trusted will see their adversaries multiply, despite anything else they do.

There is a shocking exchange starting at minute 26:20—shocking for its tone-deafness—that I want to discuss before I conclude. The young man is standing in front of the police car. He’s been handcuffed for over 20 minutes at this point. Not only is his mom on the scene, but his neighbors have been driving by seeing him standing there, his car torn apart, multiple police cars surrounding his vehicle. Other neighbors have gathered a safe distance away to watch. This would be humiliating for anyone, but as a father of teenagers, I’m perhaps more acutely aware of the shame this would create for an 18-year-old.

Officer: “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you have this negative view towards the police? What’s the deal? What has ever happened in your life personally where you can give me a good explanation?"

Young Man: “Absolutely nothing.” The young man goes on to describe how he is a responsible citizen.

Officer: “So, what’s the problem? Why are we in this situation?”

Young Man (voice cracking): “You. F---ing you!”

That made me cry. I’m a law and order guy, but there is no reason for this kind of investigative police stop. It’s time for mayors and city councils to redirect their public safety approach and end the routine traffic stop.