In D.C., Black people make up 76.4% of all traffic stops, according to data from the Police Reform Commission.
If you run a red light or drive too fast, you might see the flashing lights of a police car in your rearview mirror.
But as cities and states across the country grapple with ongoing and increasingly public incidents of violent police interactions — largely impacting Black, Latino, and other minority communities — some activists and lawmakers are starting to ask whether police should even be responsible for those types of traffic stops.
That's now the case in D.C., where the Police Reform Commission created in the wake of last summer's racial justice protests has recommended that traffic enforcement be taken out of the hands of police and be moved to the D.C. Department of Transportation. While some elected officials say there's merit to the idea, others say there also needs to be a thorough study of the consequences of the change.
The commission, which was established by the D.C. Council, released a report earlier this month with the aim to "improve or find alternatives to policing in the District."
"Not only is policing inadequate on its own to keep people safe, it too often causes undue harm in the precise communities it is nominally meant to protect," the report's introduction says. "Much of what has been normalized and accepted as necessary in policing does not answer genuine public safety needs but rather reflects the often-unthinking perpetuation of a system designed to control and exploit, rather than empower and nurture people — especially Black and Latinx people."
"MPD must take care to ensure that the benefits of every stop, search, arrest, and use of force outweigh the anguish such encounters cause — that, in every encounter, officers are doing more good than harm," it added.
The report's 90 recommendations came just days before two high-profile incidents involving Black men who were stopped for minor traffic violations. In Minnesota, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by an officer (who said she thought she had her Taser in her hands) after he was stopped for expired registration. And Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario was pepper-sprayed by police in Windsor, Virginia after he was stopped for not having a permanent license plate.
The list of those shot or killed during a traffic stop is much longer, and data shows that Black and other minority motorists are disproportionately stopped for traffic violations In D.C., Black people make up 76.4% of all traffic stops, according to data in the report. Additionally, 86% of all stops that did not result in a warning, ticket, or arrest were of Black people. (Black residents make up roughly 46% of the city's population, but police stops include non-residents.)
The commission laid out the following recommendations for how traffic enforcement in D.C. should be changed:
- Transfer authority to enforce traffic violations "that do not imminently threaten public safety" from MPD to DDOT. The Council should require DDOT to hire and train employees to enforce regulations. They would take care of issues like too-dark window tint, mechanical issues, and similar infractions. "The Council should undertake a comprehensive review of District regulations regarding civil traffic and vehicle infractions to determine which ones should be enforced by DDOT," says the commission.
- Prohibit traffic stops — whether by DDOT or MPD — based solely on the alleged violation of vehicle operation infractions that are not an immediate threat to public safety (though violations could be charged in connection with either a collision or a stop based on another infraction).
- Only allow pretextual stops — stops legally justified for minor offenses but in fact made to investigate more serious offenses — with supervisory approval and only to investigate violent crimes.
- Repeal or revise traffic and vehicle regulations that don't threaten public safety. "Examples of regulations that should be repealed include 'operating a personal mobility device with ears covered,' and 'distracted driving.' No matter which agency enforces them, these regulations are vague and... are too frequently enforced. An example of a regulation that is overbroad is littering from a vehicle, which should be limited to circumstances that endanger other people," the report states.
- Prohibit MPD from conducting traffic safety compliance checkpoints, "except in response to repeated community complaints about particular traffic violations that pose an imminent threat to public safety."
A few cities have taken strides to change the way they enforce traffic laws. In February, Berkeley, California, banned its police officers from making stops for minor traffic offenses.
"The reforms require city officials to implement a ban on stopping drivers for offenses that aren't safety-related, such as for broken taillights or even rolling through a stop sign if no one's around, and would stop police officers from asking about parole and probation status in most circumstances," the New York Times reports.
Rashawn Ray, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies police-civilian relations, says the commission's recommendations are a win-win for police and residents. Police will have more time to fight violent crime and there's less of a chance traffic stops will escalate to deadly consequences.
"Maybe racial disparity [in stops] will transfer [to DDOT], but the big thing is at least it will take the use of force out of the equation," he said. "People of color may still be more likely to be profiled, but it removes the fatality element of it."
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council's public safety committee, says moving more traffic enforcement to DDOT would also free up police to prioritize more serious public safety issues. Minor fines don't change driving behavior, Allen says, and they're more likely to disproportionately impact low-income residents.
"Traffic enforcement creates thousands of unnecessary and potentially dangerous interactions between police and residents each year, yet is inconsistent enough that MPD isn't reducing speeding or dangerous driving," Allen said in a statement. "Traffic enforcement takes officers' time and energy away from higher priority public safety concerns."
Allen says bad stops are not only unconstitutional, but they also cost the District money in settlements and fray trust between law enforcement and the community.
But Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Council's transportation committee, says the whole report deserves careful study before lawmakers act. She says she is open to implementing some of the ideas but does have concerns, like eliminating infractions that "don't harm immediate public safety." She wonders where to draw the line.
"Does it matter at all that we may have vehicles running around with no turn signals, no other safety equipment that's operating?" she pondered. "Is it going to be open season for handling your vehicle however you want? I mean, there must have been some reason why we had these rules put in place in the first place."
Cheh says some of the language leaves a lot of room for interpretation. She says the best move would be to eliminate pretextual stops for low-level offenses. She recalls ride alongs where officers told her to pick any car and they could find a reason to pull them over.
"They go on all the time... and are demoralizing and degrading for those that are stopped," Cheh said. "It's a constant harassment of people and typically people of color. So we really have to get some control of that, some remedy for that, because that's wrong."
The Council has already taken a step in that direction. In 2016, it passed a bill limiting the ability of police to pull drivers over for having air fresheners or other objects hanging from their rearview mirror. Similarly, earlier this year lawmakers in Virginia passed a measure that prevents police from pulling over motorists only for some minor infractions like tinted windows and defective equipment.
Cheh said she does support having more speed cameras and red-light cameras at every intersection since they can't discriminate by driver, only infractions. She says it would cut down on dangerous driving.
A police reform commission in Arlington County drew a similar conclusion earlier this year, recommending an increase in the use of cameras because they can "advance confidence in equitable outcomes by reducing or eliminating the possibility of race- and ethnicity-based disparities in traffic enforcement."
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser already shifted the automated traffic enforcement cameras (speed cameras, stop sign, and red light cameras) to DDOT back in 2019, a move that allowed DDOT to be more flexible with where enforcement was needed.
But Ray says the cameras need to be equitably spread across all neighborhoods to reduce discrimination against certain populations.
Cheh says she'd also like to see a divide in who is doing the enforcement, including unarmed "peace officers" to do traffic enforcement and community engagement. But she also wonders if the public will take getting pulled over by DDOT as seriously as they would getting pulled over by police.
Neither the District Department of Transportation nor the Metropolitan Police Department returned a request for comment on the idea. But speaking on WAMU's "The Politics Hour" last week, Acting Chief Robert Contee did say he would be open to transferring certain responsibilities away from police, though he did not specifically cite traffic enforcement.
D.C. Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton excoriated the idea, saying District leaders often try to shift responsibilities to other agencies "only to have those agencies fail."
"The reason that police are so well-suited to carry out these responsibilities is that they are well-equipped, well-trained, and are on the streets 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Pemberton said in a statement. "If city leaders want to continue their efforts on Vision Zero, they will need significant levels of enforcement from both MPD and DDOT."
Pemberton pointed to comments by one of the commissioners, attorney Robert S. Bennett, who wrote that many of the recommendations have "serious repercussions" and would be "dangerous and foolhardy to proceed without further study."
"If (he) has denounced the report, I think we should all follow suit and ignore the ridiculous proposals made by a group of people who are clearly on a mission to defund police," Pemberton said.
It's unclear what the next steps are for the Police Reform Commission's recommendations are. Two lawmakers have already turned one into legislation to ban most police car chases. Ray, the UMD professor, says D.C. should pilot and experiment with the commission's ideas as soon as possible.
"We know what we need to do, but people have to find the political will," he said.
Cheh says she's open to examining the ideas more closely with the help of a roundtable of experts, but suggests years of study before any implementation.
"I'm glad they put it out," Cheh said. "It's certainly worthy of looking seriously at it and considering if we were to do it or part of it, how would we do it. But it's going to have to take a lot of care and thoughtfulness because either eliminating some infractions or transferring enforcement has a lot of significance in terms of effects."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.