Why do armed police enforce traffic laws?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes Segura was already researching the role of policing in traffic enforcement before I started working on this story. So I worked with him over the past week to put this piece together. As the city opens the police budget to scrutiny, it’s vital that we look back to our history to learn how police ever got involved in traffic enforcement in the first place. Before diving into the budget details, Seattle should take a big step back and ask some for foundational questions about the racist web of a criminal justice system we have created and how traffic enforcement is very often the point of entry for Black people and people of color who get caught in it.

Old photo of Seattle Police with a line of cars.

Seattle Police cars from the National Police Journal, December 1919.

Protests are happening in Seattle and throughout the world in solidarity to support Black lives. This Civil Rights movement comes from the recent videos and stories of Charleena Lyles, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and the endless list of BIPOC lost to police violence  #SayTheirNames.

The City of Seattle is one of many cities considering defunding police, but what exactly does that look like within transportation? Police enforcement within transportation has  sustained racial inequity. From biking to riding the light rail to taking the bus to walking and to driving, police power is ingrained into every mode of transportation. Here’s the catch though, if you are not Black, Indigenous, and or a Person of Color (“BIPOC”), you haven’t faced what it’s like to be disproportionately targeted by the police just because of the color of your skin. It means you could be facing life or death, and if it isn’t death it’s likely going to be a life burden in some form or way.

What is traffic enforcement?

The most common form of transportation policing can be found within traffic enforcement. And many of the people named above were killed during contacts with police officers that started either genuinely or in the guise of a traffic-related stop.

So why did our society task armed police with traffic enforcement in the first place? Sarah Seo, Associate Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law and author of Policing the Open Road, writes that in cities across the country police were called to respond to the quickly rising death, injury tolls, and congestion that came from the introduction and mass production of cars in the 1920s. Seattle was no different, calling for more police to help control traffic around the same time as our last great pandemic.

“One division which is rapidly growing both in volume of business and in importance is the Traffic Division,” writes G.G. Evans in “The Police Force of Seattle, Queen City of the Northwest” in the December 1919 National Police Journal (self-proclaimed as “America’s Greatest Police Magazine). “The enormous increase in the number of automobiles makes the relief of congestion an urgent problem and one requiring traffic attention.” The National Traffic Officers’ Association held its 1919 meeting at Seattle Police headquarters (they would pass a resolution supporting mandatory turn signals on cars).

In that same article, Evans writes that “the country had been infested by a notorious half-breed murderer” and then praises Seattle Police Chief Joel F. Warren for arresting 200 “lewd women” in a “house-cleaning” effort before soldiers from Camp Lewis came to the city for leisure. Just to give you an idea of the horrifically racist and sexist mindset back when Seattle Police was first dramatically expanding their traffic patrol efforts along with police departments across the nation.

During this time cities also justified the widening of roads and more paved roads as a way to solve congestion. Of course induced demand increased congestion only to reinforce the idea of further increasing police forces and further widening roads.

The wave of traffic from cars also brought about a tsunami of traffic laws. By criminalizing dangerous driving, nearly every person who drove became a potential criminal (the flow of traffic is very often well above the speed limit, for example). By then outlawing jaywalking, nearly every person who walked became a potential criminal, too. This all raised serious constitutional questions, especially related to the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” For example, a traffic violation has become enough probable cause to stop people, question them, search their cars (or pockets) and run their names through police computers. At any point, something entirely unrelated to traffic can happen. Officers could mistakenly think (or claim to think) the person was reaching for a gun (Philando Castile), officers could not appreciate the tone of the person they stopped and get violent (Sandra Bland), officers could spot something in the backseat they claim is related to drug use, officers could discover that the person has a warrant out from some previous case or from unpaid tickets, etc. There are so many ways a simple traffic stop can turn into something much bigger, whether that’s immediate violence or getting trapped in the criminal justice system.

Seo writes about landmark cases a century ago, especially one pertaining to a rum runner during Prohibition, as the legal foundation for creating a standard that the Fourth Amendment does not fully apply in traffic. Police officers have enormous amounts of discretion in deciding who to stop and search, which creates huge opportunities for race and class bias in policing. If everyone is driving seven over the speed limit, for example, officers can pull over whoever they want. If everyone is crossing the street without waiting for the walk signal, then police can stop anyone they want. Officers’ biases, whether overt or unconscious, result in Black people and people of color being stopped at far higher rates than white people doing the same things. And every police contact is an opportunity for escalation or incrimination, especially when you factor in the racist failures of the rest of the criminal justice system.

A Stanford study of racial bias in traffic stops in cities across the U.S. not only found that Driving While Black is very real, but also found that police were far more likely to search a Black driver’s car than a white driver’s car when making those stops. This is a major way that the criminal justice system tips the scales, sending a disproportionate number of Black people and people of color to prison.

In respect to my BIPOC familia who might get triggered by viewing the viral videos of police killing us, here’s a video of Amber Ruffin sharing her personal stories of what driving while Black, looks like.

Traffic enforcement started with safety and congestion relief in mind, but roads are as congested as ever, and they aren’t equally safe for everyone. Let’s establish a basic truth: Traffic enforcement by police is racist.

The current practices of police enforcement are inherently racist because American policing is rooted in slavery. People weren’t slaves, they were enslaved. And their enslavers used police to capture and return people who had escaped. In modern times, the racist legacy of policing is visible not just in the hugely disproportionate rate at which police kill Black people, but it also shows up in data about who gets stopped and ticketed for traffic infractions regardless of mode of travel.

Walking. 

“Jaywalking” was not always illegal. For millennia, if you wanted to walk across a street, you just walked across the street. So when the car came along and people driving them started running over and killing people in the streets, society largely blamed the person driving (and cars in general) for this death and carnage. But in the 1920s, auto companies invested in huge campaigns to brand people who walk in streets as “jaywalkers.” Laws followed shortly, banning people from walking in streets and requiring them to cross at designated “crosswalks.” This effort did three things: It shifted the blame for death and injury onto the victim rather than the person driving the dangerous vehicle, it ceded a ton of city space as primarily the domain of cars, and it tasked police officers with enforcing these new walking regulations.

“Pedestrianizing” people turns them into a lower class of vehicle, making them subject to car traffic enforcement even though an inattentive, careless or reckless walker does not maim and kill people like people driving cars. Now jaywalking is often used as a pretense for stops. Michael Brown was initially stopped for walking in the street in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb Ferguson. Officer Darren Wilson killed him.

In Seattle, Officer Ian Walsh violently arrested a Black 19-year-old and punched a Black 17-year-old after stopping the teens for jaywalking across MLK Jr Way near Franklin High School, where there is no crosswalk (a nearby pedestrian overpass is out of the way and takes a lot longer than just crossing the street, so many people choose not to use it). A subsequent SPD review somehow decided this was not excessive force for a teenage jaywalking stop that escalated. The jaywalking charge was later dropped.

Between 2010 and 2016, a stunning 26% of Seattle Police jaywalking tickets went to Black people, who made up only 7% of the city’s population at the time, the Seattle Times found. The Department did dramatically decrease the total number of jaywalking tickets officers gave after the teen-punching incident drew public outrage, but the racist disparity remains.

City Council President Lorena González has proposed an ordinance to change jaywalking city laws. Legalizing jaywalking would possibly require a change in Washington State law, but if nothing else the Council could possibly decriminalize it by making it the lowest possible law enforcement priority. That wouldn’t solve all the problems with jaywalking (it is consistently cited as a reason to blame victims for their own injuries and to avoid civil compensation regardless of driver error), but it could remove one tool police use to make biased stops.

Biking.

Racial bias and treatment of BIPOC by police when biking is a thing. In 2018, two sibling Black teenagers (a 15- and 16-year-old) were biking from McDonald’s cutting through the Tacoma Mall Parking lot as cops followed them. Footage shows one of the teenagers being slammed into a car, slammed onto the ground, and then tased. The other teenager was arrested and cited for bicycling without a helmet.

Like jaywalking, bicycle helmet laws also give police wide discretion for making stops. And though sidewalk biking is legal in most of Washington State, many other cities have laws against it. A report from New York City found that more than 86% of sidewalk biking tickets were given to people officers noted as Black or Hispanic.

Are these bicycle infractions truly making our streets safer? The number of Seattle Police bicycle infractions has declined steeply since 2011, and the injury and death rate for people biking (PDF) has been flat or improved during the same time. Of course, bicycle infrastructure has also improved, but if an 85% drop in bike tickets didn’t result in an increase in injuries and deaths, that raises serious questions about whether some of these laws need to be on the books or enforced at all.

Table showing bicycle infractions cited by Seattle Police 2011 through 2019.(Seattle Municipal Court, 2020)

Light rail.

The argument made time and time again for fare enforcement is that the transportation agency must be fiscally responsible, legitimizing the practice of racial bias through enforcement. Sound Transit’s light rail fare enforcement shows the disparities of how BIPOC are being impacted through fare enforcement creating such a cost burden it sets you up for failure. Though 9% of Sound Transit riders are Black, a remarkable 43% of fare evasion citations and 57% of escalated misdemeanor fare “theft” cases are levied against Black people. You go from being a passenger taking a simple trip to getting a $124 ticket to becoming a criminal with a misdemeanor for failure to pay. And now you are trapped in the system.

Bus.

$1.7 million was spent on RapidRide bus fare enforcement in 2016, according to a 2018 King County Auditor’s Office report (PDF). That’s $435 per citation given, far more than the amount recovered from those citations. Fewer than 3% of these fare citations were paid in 2016 because “a significant share of people cited for fare evasion may not have the ability to pay a $124 fine because they are homeless or low income,” the report states. And for those who couldn’t pay the citations created more debt from going into collections. What’s interesting is in the report, they state that King County Metro fare enforcement officers are not randomly deployed.

“Transit deploy more fare enforcement officers to lines where it has observed more fare evasion in the past,” the report states. “Since more officers are deployed in these areas than others, they will likely continue to find more fare evasion there.”

If officers are purposefully targeting lines that aren’t paying, where are these lines located? Are they located along neighborhoods that have been historically redlined? Are they serving neighborhoods that are predominantly BIPOC and or low-to-moderate income?

The report later goes on to say “It is not clear how effective fare enforcement is, how many resources are needed, or where to deploy them. As a result, inefficiencies and inequities in fare enforcement will likely expand as the system grows.”

Mood: Where is that GIF where someone flips over a table?

Money, Money, Money…Yo conozco a alguien que la gusta mucho el money – Bomba Estéreo 

Looking over the 2019-20 Seattle budget there are 40 Departments funded, and ten of those departments represent 87% of that budget. The Seattle Police Department is part of the ten, with a proposed budget of $409 million (Patch, 2020). Most of their budget is spent on the 1,315 staff salaries.

Yellow sticky note here, the SPD budget is not entirely transparent with how many officers solely work on traffic enforcement, but the largest staff budget line is for “patrol operations,” which would include traffic enforcement, and the third largest staff budget line is for “special operations,” which also includes traffic:

Chart of "authorized sworn/civilian FTEs by budget support level."

From a June 10 report to the Seattle City Council Budget Committee (PDF).

Because a patrol officer spends time just looking for any law to enforce and responding to calls, it’s likely difficult to tease out what percent is related to traffic enforcement specifically. It’s just part of the core duties of patrol.

Dismantling structural racism within transportation means rethinking how it involves police.

If it’s defunding the Seattle Police Department or even considering the abolition of police, this dialogue needs to happen. For some it might be difficult to understand, but if we are working towards ending racism we have to start being uncomfortable and start confronting racism where it’s being sourced. Here are some ideas for how we can do so:

What if “Policies and expectations of “safety” isn’t outsourced to law enforcement when it can be built into streets and vehicles,” as Barb Chamberlain, Active Transportation Division Director at WSDOT, noted during a recent state Autonomous Vehicle Workgroup committee meeting. Even engineers back in the early 20th century understood that the goal of traffic management was not to penalize but to design roads for people to be constantly aware of danger when on the streets, so that law enforcement would not be necessary at all. The 1919 National Police Journal article notes that Seattle Police were “ardent advocate(s) of the semaphore placed at one side of the center of the street intersection and used in connection with the whistle, the whistle to be blown just before the semaphore is turned to change the general direction of moving traffic.” In other words, police pushed for and were part of the first traffic signals, a duty that now falls to departments of transportation rather than police.

Safe streets engineering has repeatedly proven to be vastly more effective at increasing road safety than any police patrol could be. Many Seattle before-and-after studies from Nickerson St to NE 125th St to Rainier Ave S show the same thing: When dangerous, fast streets are redesigned to simplify car movements and slow speeding, injuries and deaths plummet. Speed humps are called “sleeping policemen” in some parts of the world, which illustrates this point well. If people keep getting hurt or killed in traffic collisions on a particular street or location, that points to a street design problem, not a policing problem.

Transportation departments can also increase use of red-light cameras, adopt the inclusion of speed cameras outside of school zones, and increase automation of enforcement. There’s been an emerging trend in using technology to automate enforcement for safer roads. Cameras have been used to deter speeding, fatal crashes and overall serve as a way to improve road safety. Seattle Department of Transportation is proposing the expansion of its School Zone Program, with 10 new speed camera school locations. These cameras only capture your license plate and vehicle, then a ticket is mailed to the address on your vehicle registration. For those interested in seeing what happens to your Vision Zero numbers when you ban red-light cameras check out Houston, Texas 

Eliminate fare enforcement. The Transit Riders Union has called the practice “absurd and despicable,” and called for a moratorium on fare enforcement.

Expand the Stay Healthy Streets network to promote the use of walking, biking, and other modes that are not cars. Seattle’s implementation of these projects makes it legal to walk in the street, one of the first major efforts by the city to push back on jaywalking laws. Unfortunately, it happened for the worst reason, but it has given us insight into the safety of decriminalizing walking in the street.

Invest more in accessible mobility options that are not car dependent.

Replace traffic enforcement with trained, unarmed professionals similar to a proposal in Los Angeles. Why are we sending an officer with a gun to pull over people with expired tabs or who are breaking relatively low-level traffic laws? Imagine if parking enforcement officers, who are unarmed and handle parking-related infractions, were trained and empowered to cite people for other infractions, like failing to yield at a crosswalk or running stop signs or even speeding. You don’t need a gun with bullets to hold a radar gun. Tickets could even be mailed to people’s homes, avoiding the risks of escalation that come with every traffic stop.

Find alternatives to jail time for traffic infractions. Washington State passed the Vulnerable User Law in 2012 (and passed some fixes in 2019), which created a second degree negligent driving infraction and outlined penalties that were significant but also non-criminal for people who kill or maim another user due to a driving mistake. Previously, people who made a simple driving error (“I didn’t see them”) and killed or seriously injured someone would face few if any penalties. The teen who killed John Przychodzen in Kirkland famously received an insulting $42 ticket for “unsafe lane change,” an example that fueled outrage and helped inspire the law change. But in crafting new rules, legislators and transportation safety advocates did not want to just fill prisons with bad drivers. So the rules were crafted to include a combination of significant financial penalties, relevant community service and/or suspension of their driver’s license. The law is an example of trying to create a restorative path to justice without prison or plaguing people’s lives with a felony conviction.

We desperately need to improve traffic safety in our city and our country. This blog has been dedicated to the cause for a decade. But that means reassessing our methods. We’ve been leaning on police for over a century to fix traffic and make it safe, and 35,000 people are still dying in traffic collisions every year. Maybe armed police were never the right tool in the first place.

About Yes Segura

Yes Segura, is a first-generational El Salvadoran American openly Transgender Man who actively works as an Autonomous Vehicle Transportation Planner focusing on equity & health. He hails from Richmond, VA, but is based out of Seattle, WA and serves as the Chair for Young Professionals in Transportation Seattle (YPT Seattle) and Director of Communications for YPT International. You can find him biking around town on his 1970's shiny blue Peugeot. To learn more about Yes head on over to YesSegura.com.
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13 Responses to Why do armed police enforce traffic laws?

  1. Tom Fucoloro says:

    Big thanks to Yes for all your work on this story.

  2. bill says:

    This article ignores the third rail of American politics – the Second Amendment. The very sad truth is that officers need to be armed because so many citizens are armed. I would not work as an unarmed officer making traffic stops in any neighborhood. When you call SPD to report a parking infraction the call taker always asks whether the car is occupied. They only send an unarmed traffic officer if the car is unoccupied. And I sure don’t talk to anyone in a car blocking a bike lane.

    • NickS says:

      Part of the process may involve widespread education that non-armed traffic enforcement is beginning, and to issue very different uniforms to help distinguish unarmed “bobbies” from armed response teams. This may help to prevent unarmed officers from being attacked if approaching a vehicle which contains someone with, for example, outstanding warrants. Another element could be, as mentioned in the article, increased use of automated traffic enforcement (though this can be problematic if the driver is different than the vehicle owner). Body cameras on personnel to record inappropriate or illegal behavior could be helpful too.

      Despite being unarmed, parking enforcement personnel do not commonly get slaughtered in the streets, despite working in a very unpopular and disliked profession. It takes a certain personality (one I certainly don’t possess) to be able to work in that position, and I suspect the same will be true for traffic enforcement.

      • bill says:

        Widespread automated speed enforcement would be a huge step forward. But for some reason in this country we require you to be caught red-handed by a cop. I say phooey on the argument that the driver sometimes cannot be identified in a picture. Who cares. Hold the owner responsible. The owner is at fault for allowing an irresponsible person to drive the car.

      • Ballard Biker says:

        I say phooey on the argument that the driver sometimes cannot be identified in a picture. Who cares. Hold the owner responsible. The owner is at fault for allowing an irresponsible person to drive the car.

        Last I checked, the owner is responsible for the ticket unless they sign an affidavit that someone else was driving the car, which entails stating who was driving. That person is then responsible for the ticket. The ticket doesn’t go away by the owner stating they weren’t driving the car.

        But for some reason in this country we require you to be caught red-handed by a cop.

        The big issue, as Tom has stated elsewhere, is the current chain of automated tickets is shrouded in secrecy. My friend got a speeding ticket in Federal Way a few years ago. The jurisdiction was Federal Way. It got reviewed by a “police officer” in Arizona, the ticket came from one for-profit company in Cincinnati and payment was remitted to a second for-profit company in Chicago.

        You can contest it, but the video they provide is typically the final word and there is little recourse and zero transparency, plus the fine is low enough that a lot of people will just pay it rather than fighting further (Visa and Mastercard accepted!). In this case, he knew he had been speeding, but the video we saw could have easily been manipulated and you would never know.

        I’m a fan of automated enforcement in theory, but not how it’s implemented. The behavior of car drivers has gotten worse and dangerous in the past decade, but the level of enforcement has stayed flat or gone down, to the detriment of vulnerable users and other drivers.

        What we need is a state owned and run agency, outside of law enforcement, with civilian oversight and regular audits that handles review and processing of all automated fines in the state. Local jurisdictions are free to set up their own agency, but they must meet the same, rigorous standards, so likely most will defer to the state agency.

  3. Tim says:

    That’s $435 per [RapidRide] citation given, far more than the amount recovered from those citations.

    I believe 100% of the “revenue” goes to the court, so the actual amount recovered would be $0 regardless if the infraction was found commited or not commited.

  4. tudza says:

    Mostly good points, but the red light camera thing is a little iffy. You don’t have to look too hard to find many cases of this safety system being turned into a cash cow with tweaks to lights to increase the number off fines, etc. In fact, reading the comments on the referenced article you see a number of these objections.

    • Bill Gobie says:

      That’s a canard. Who cares where the money goes. The purpose is to discourage and punish speeding or light running. If you want to add a social justice dimension make fines a percentage of the value of the car when the owner acquired it.

      • Tom Fucoloro says:

        I do think any camera scheme needs careful regulation. There have been some cases of misuse, as well as some really awful privatization deals where camera companies got way more of the cut than they should. But these issues can be solved with the right regulations and checks. Also, equity issues can come up in any system, so the programs have to be very conscious about where and how they are functioning. Also, do unpaid tickets turn into warrants? All important questions.

      • I love that idea. Genius.

  5. Don Brubeck says:

    Good article.
    One disagreement: Red light cameras are not “fair” or equal to all. If you are wealthy, the fine is an annoyance. If you are poor, it might cost you your car and way to get to work, or your food budget for the month. If you are undocumented, it could be used to deport you.

  6. John Sherwood says:

    Simple… because 37,000 plus people are killed in traffic accidents every year compared to 36,000 gun deaths (22,000 of which were suicides.. and don’t really factor into policed interaction much until later) WITH traffic enforcement. In the early 70s it was over 50,000 with 125,000,000 less folk in the U.S. It is also how they stumble on many other crimes, wants and warrants. I am definitely AGAINST overreaching policing policies from experience when I was young and stupid but one overreaction vs. another just doesn’t make sense.

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