Would Changing How Police Make Traffic Stops Save Lives?

July 8th 2016

Thor Benson

It seems to happen time and again: Minor traffic violations lead to deaths, particularly for Black drivers at the hands of white police officers. This week brought another: Philando Castile, who was pulled over for a broken taillight and wound up dead, with his fiancee and 4-year-old daughter in the car. Past examples include Sandra Bland and Walter Scott.

One reason police officers carry out traffic stops is simple: money. Cities across the United States use traffic tickets and fines as revenue streams, and large parts of police departments and other city expenses rely upon the money coming in from minor traffic violations.

But Black Americans are are more likely to be stopped than white citizens. And Black people also disproportionately find themselves at the wrong end of a police shooting. Are we asking for trouble?

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic has a novel proposal to avoid shootings like those that have roiled the nation this week. He suggests that police completely avoid personal encounters with drivers in traffic stops for broken taillights and the like. Instead, he argues, police should simply photograph the license plate of a minor traffic violator and send a "fix it" ticket to the vehicle's registered owner at a later date.

Eliminating the personal contact could reduce the danger for both the officer and the driver, Friedersdorf argues. (He isn't suggesting eliminating personal contact when an officer stops a driver suspected of being under the influence or something more serious than an equipment violation.)

It's an interesting concept. But would it solve the problem?

"The revenue motive is just one explanation that applies to some jurisdictions," Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst for The Sentencing Project, told ATTN:. She said that many police departments pursue interactions with certain people based on flawed philosophies such as the "broken windows" theory, under which police officers strictly enforce laws against minor crimes in order to prevent major crimes.

Ghandnoosh said Friederdorf's proposal could "definitely put a dent" in the amount of contact African-Americans have with the police. But it might not be as significant as you would think, she added.

pulled over

"Some of these kinds of stops are used to investigate and to address the suspicion that the police officer has about a driver," Ghandnoosh said. "I feel like officers will find ways to still have the interaction."

Ghandnoosh pointed to a study that asked why and how often police executed traffic stops on people in Kansas City between 2003 and '04. The study highlighted the difference between "traffic safety" stops and "investigatory" stops.

"Traffic safety stops, the researchers concluded, are based on 'how people drive,' whereas investigatory stops are based on 'how they look,'" Ghandnoosh wrote in an analysis.

Police made a traffic safety stop when they suspected a person was driving too fast or was drunk. They made an investigatory stop when they thought someone was up to no good and wanted to find out what was up. Police would use a broken taillight as an excuse for the latter kind of interaction.

Trying to stop officers from putting themselves and others in harm's way by limiting the interaction involved in giving someone a traffic ticket could save some lives, but it probably wouldn't solve the problem entirely.