What could possibly go wrong?
Banning traffic stops by SFPD could have unintended consequences
•••••••••• November 7, 2022 ••••••••••
The San Francisco Police Commission is proposing to reduce traffic enforcement by police. The result could be more traffic accidents, fewer arrests or citations, more shootings … and more crime.
You read that correctly – at a time when traffic accidents are soaring nationwide and San Franciscans' concern with crime is near an all-time high, some public officials want to effectively ignore certain offenses and further handicap law enforcement. After all, if you pay no attention to crime, it will just disappear, right?
The professed goal of the Commission proposal to limit traffic stops is to reduce racial bias in the discretionary enforcement of our traffic laws, surely a worthy goal. The change is designed to reduce racial disparities in stops and searches, and would curtail the use of pre-text stops (defined as traffic stops conducted in order to conduct a criminal investigation unrelated to the motorist's driving, and not for the purpose of enforcing the traffic code).
Supporters of their use sometimes justify pretest stops because they often result in arrests for other, more serious violations. Police reportedly find that drivers who blatantly ignore small laws like littering or missing license plates are also more likely to disregard laws pertaining to violence.
Under the proposal before the Police Commission, police would be unable to stop vehicles for most non-moving traffic violations. SFPD would be prohibited from enforcing many traffic regulations, including:
Failure to signal while turning
Broken headlights/taillights/brake lights
Expired license registration
Missing license plates
Tinted windows and other obstructions of vision;
Littering from a vehicle; and various other offenses.
(There are exceptions, such as when the suspect is wanted in a murder or armed robbery, or there is a substantial likelihood of injury or death).
Many traffic stops result in seizures of and convictions for contraband – illegal weapons, supplies of drugs and drug paraphernalia, burglary tools, explosives, etc.—and crimes ranging from driving under the influence, robbery, murder and domestic violence. Why would some people object to such arrests? Is it perhaps that they don't actually want criminals arrested?"
But there are worse problems associated with this policy change. These traffic violations may not sound like a big deal, but the unintended consequences on crime are worrying. How do police acquire evidence and investigate criminals who commit more serious crimes? Police often collect evidence of heinous crimes when they conduct a traffic stop and find probable cause or a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. They may also have a blanket right to conduct a search after encountering a parolee or offender on probation. Or they may arrest violent or sex offenders on an outstanding warrant.
Many traffic stops result in seizures of and convictions for contraband – illegal weapons, supplies of drugs and drug paraphernalia, burglary tools, explosives, etc.—and crimes ranging from driving under the influence, robbery, murder and domestic violence. Why would some people object to such arrests? Is it perhaps that they don't actually want criminals arrested?
Defense attorneys typically complain that police arrest low-level dealers, arguing that the city should go after high-level suppliers instead. But police generally are unable to make such arrests up the drug cartel chain-of-command without collecting evidence from street dealers first.
Advocates of limits on traffic stops also typically want to prohibit officers from: 1) asking for consent to search; 2) asking questions about non-traffic crimes; 3) asking about probation/parole status; and 4) conducting probation/parole searches. Why do they take that position?
Logic suggests that banning most traffic stops will lead to fewer arrests and more crime. But perhaps there are still valid reasons for opposing such enforcement?
Some Police Commissioners and a coalition of more than 60 advocacy organizations point to statistics that show that people of color are cited more frequently for these traffic violations. Black drivers are both more likely to be detained and searched during a stop, and are less likely to be found with contraband, than white or Asian-American drivers.
One Public Policy Institute of California study found that during nighttime traffic stops (not specifically those under consideration by the Police Commission), Black drivers were found to have contraband in 19% of cases, compared with 25% for white drivers.
While advocates argue that these disparities are due to racial bias by police officers, the Institute says there could be other factors such as increased police presence in high crime areas, differences in traffic patterns, driving behaviors and vehicle conditions.
These researchers also employed the "veil of darkness" theory. It shows that racial disparities are only minimally impacted (2.2% decrease in stops for Black and Latino drivers) by the change to night lighting conditions, when police often cannot see skin color and racial features. Conversely, stops after the switch from dark to light increased by 1.4% (which is not statistically significant) to 2.0% for Black and Latino drivers. While these differences appear to show evidence of bias, they also indicate that such disparities based on race are minimal compared to advocates' claims.
The Police Commission ... has established a working group to take feedback on its (traffic enforcement) proposal from the public. So far, three working group sessions have been held, primarily in the Bayview, with no public meetings on the Westside. Does the Westside deserve to provide public feedback too?"
So what are we to do? Suggestions to reduce racial disparities in stops range from:
Minimizing police interactions by mailing citations to the registered vehicle owners for infractions such as tinted windows or a broken taillight, rather than stopping vehicles.
Installing traffic cameras to cite drivers rather than using police to conduct traffic stops. (However, a Chicago study showed that use of "race-neutral" traffic cameras resulted in households in Black and Latino neighborhoods receiving tickets at twice the rate of white neighborhoods.)
Reducing costs for vehicle licenses and registration for lower-income drivers, which would probably make it more likely that law-abiding lower-income drivers have up-to-date registration/licenses, and thus reduce racial disparities due to poverty.
Continuing to conduct traffic stops, but seek to increase police diversity and train officers (implicit bias training) to avoid racial profiling.
In my view, the first approach is not preferable. If a vehicle is not licensed, mailing citations won't work, and the owner of the vehicle might, justifiably in some cases, claim that they were not driving when the infraction occurred. While the traffic camera approach might increase the perception of fairness, it would require a change in state law in most cases, and the Chicago study indicates that this approach might create even greater racial disparities.
The third and fourth approaches outlined above are more promising, but not a panacea, since the former would address only a fraction of stops, and the results from data on bias training are mixed to date. However, statistical analysis appears to indicate that a diverse police force can have significant impact in reducing racial disparities, and San Francisco already has significantly increased diversity in the police force.
The Police Commission, in collaboration with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, has established a working group to take feedback on its proposal from the public. So far, three working group sessions have been held, primarily in the Bayview, with no public meetings on the Westside. Does the Westside deserve to provide public feedback too?
What do you think? Share your opinions with the Police Commission by writing to: email@example.com. And consider copying the Mayor or your Supervisor, though they have limited influence over the Police Commission: MayorLondonBreed@sfgov.org and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frank Noto is president of Stop Crime SF, a victims rights group dedicated to preventing crime in San Francisco and giving victims a voice.
November 7, 2022