Proposal would reward cities that take cops out of traffic stops

Black people are disproportionately pulled over and searched on US roads, according to an analysis of over 200 million traffic stops by the Stanford Open Policing Project. The encounters, which are the most common way police come into contact with the public, can turn violent. The police encounters that led to the deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Daunte Wright all started with a traffic stop. And 7% of all US police killings last year began with a traffic stop, according to Mapping Police Violence. Removing armed officers from the equation could make such encounters safer, civil rights advocates argue — but doesn’t have to mean abandoning enforcement of the rules of the road in a country where more than 40,000 people died in car crashes in 2021.

10 Feb 2023 (Bloomberg)

In the wake of the police killing of Tyre Nichols, a new bill in Congress would incentivize US cities and states to take police out of traffic enforcement. 

The proposal, introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Ritchie Torres of New York, would create a $100 million annual grant program to reward cities that transfer traffic enforcement responsibilities to unarmed civilians, or that rely on technology like speed cameras to ticket drivers.

Torres, a Democrat, said the legislation comes as a direct response to the death of Nichols, who was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers in January. Nichols had been pulled over for “reckless driving,” police said, though Memphis’s police chief said corroborating evidence for probable cause has yet to be found.

“What happened to Tyre Nichols could happen to any Black person in America,” Torres said in a statement. “We have the power to prevent traffic stops from taking a deadly turn by putting enforcement where it belongs — in the hands of civilians or cameras.” 

These Cities Are Limiting Traffic Stops for Minor Offenses

President Joe Biden also addressed Nichols’ death in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech, as he urged lawmakers to “finish the job” on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a police reform bill that failed to pass in the Senate in 2021. Biden evoked the fear of traffic stops among Black Americans, but stopped short of endorsing a reform like Torres’s. “Imagine having to worry like that every single time your kid got in a car,” he said.

Black people are disproportionately pulled over and searched on US roads, according to an analysis of over 200 million traffic stops by the Stanford Open Policing Project. The encounters, which are the most common way police come into contact with the public, can turn violent. The police encounters that led to the deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Daunte Wright all started with a traffic stop. And 7% of all US police killings last year began with a traffic stop, according to Mapping Police Violence. Removing armed officers from the equation could make such encounters safer, civil rights advocates argue — but doesn’t have to mean abandoning enforcement of the rules of the road in a country where more than 40,000 people died in car crashes in 2021. 

Road to reform

At the local and state level, traffic stops have already been a target of police reform efforts in the years since George Floyd’s killing by police. Jurisdictions like Philadelphia, San Francisco and the state of Virginia have taken steps to limit so-called “pretext” stops for minor offenses, a strategy used by officers to search cars for weapons and drugs. Data from Philadelphia and San Francisco show that a range of low-level traffic stops typically produce such contraband less than 2% of the time.

Read more: These Cities Are Limiting Traffic Stops for Minor Offenses

Other cities, like Oakland and Berkeley in California, have pushed to move some traffic and parking enforcement responsibilities to unarmed staff of their departments of transportation, as Torres’s legislation encourages. But the cities have run up against a California state law that prohibits localities from civilianizing vehicle code enforcement, a form of preemption local lawmakers are now lobbying against.

“That means that cities can’t innovate to design new and perhaps more equitable and effective approaches,” said Berkeley councilmember Rigel Robinson, who proposed the traffic enforcement initiative. 

Staffing strains in Berkeley’s civilian departments like transportation and public works would make executing such a plan difficult even if the city were able to pursue it, said Berkeley councilmember Terry Taplin. Having access to federal funding could help fuel a pilot program, which Taplin says could start with civilianizing enforcement of a narrow set of minor violations.


Leaning on technology to catch traffic violations and ticket drivers automatically is another strategy that removes guns from the equation and can mitigate human bias. In Europe, Intelligent Speed Assistance is a mandatory feature of all new cars as of last year. The so-called “speed governor” technology uses GPS signals to detect local speed limits and use an alert system to deter or prevent drivers from exceeding them. Speed cameras, which are used in more than 180 US communities, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, have been shown to reduce crashes and injuries. 

But the tools are not universally embraced: Though Berkeley advocates have also pushed to automate some traffic ticketing, California currently does not allow the use of cameras for speed enforcement, either, and statebills to introduce them have garnered law enforcement opposition. Drivers’ advocacy groups like the National Motorists Association oppose them, citing accuracy and fairness concerns. And implementation of automated traffic enforcement can still be done inequitably if cameras are placed disproportionately in communities of color said Daniela Gilbert, director of redefining public safety at the Vera Institute for Justice.

“I don’t think we really have developed a standard best practice yet,” said Angie Schmitt, a transportation safety advocate and CityLab contributor, in an email. “But I think it’s very important we begin the work of negotiating that and testing it right away given what’s happening on our roadways and the persistence of these brutality cases.”

Changing the economics

By offering financial incentives to jurisdictions that change their practices, Torres says the proposed legislation is also meant to “change the economics of over-policing” and “remove the perverse incentives for pretextual traffic stops.” A 2021 New York Times investigation found that fines and fees make up more than 10% of revenue for more than 700 US municipalities, suggesting that traffic enforcement is motivated not only by safety, but by budgetary considerations.

“If law enforcement wasn’t so intoxicated with the benefits that they receive from overly targeting and arresting and fining these populations, I think we would see a reduction in the explosive behavior that happens as a result of a stop,” said Charles T. Brown, the host of the Arrested Mobility podcast and an advocate for ending racial disparities in traffic enforcement. 

Torres acknowledges the path to passing such a bill in a Republican-controlled House will be steep, but says he hopes the legislation will be in a position to move forward if Democrats regain a majority in 2024.The idea is to encourage cities to try alternatives to policing traffic violations, he says, where now there is a monetary incentive for the status quo. “If there is no loss of revenue, then state and local government have no reason to object,” he said.


The death of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop in Memphis has reignited calls to limit how often police pull over cars for minor offenses and to eliminate so-called pretext stops that disproportionately affect people of color. 

A handful of places including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and the state of Virginia have taken steps to deter police from stopping drivers for violations like dangling air fresheners, just-expired documents and burned-out bulbs that don’t hinder visibility. Prosecutors like one in Ramsey County, Minnesota, where Philando Castile was killed in 2016, have pledged not to pursue charges from cases that are built using evidence gleaned from traffic stops. 

Getting pulled over is the most common way the public comes into contact with police. It’s also a common catalyst for police violence. At least 86 US traffic stops turned deadly last year alone, according to Mapping Police Violence. Several localities began looking at ways to limit such interactions during the 2020 protest movement over police brutality, citing evidence that police disproportionately pull over Black drivers for minor offenses and that not all traffic enforcement is a necessary part of public safety.

Those jurisdictions have recognized there’s really no benefit to requiring officers to conduct these stops,” said Akhi Johnson, a former prosecutor and the director of the Vera Institute’s Reshaping Prosecution Initiative. “These stops don’t make us safer, perpetuate disparities in who gets pulled into the criminal legal system, and unnecessarily put officers in harm’s way.”

Nichols, who was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7, was initially pulled over for what police said was suspicion of reckless driving, though the police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, told CNN she had not been able to substantiate the probable cause.

Criminal justice advocates say low-level violations are often used as justification for pretext stops, in which police cite a minor issue to search a car or a driver for weapons or drugs. They’re rarely successful, studies show. And while drivers of color are disproportionately targeted, they’re not more likely to carry contraband. 

The encounters can also erode trust with police and discourage political participation. One recent study of traffic stops in Tampa showed that drivers who had been pulled over were less likely to turn out to the polls in the next voting cycle.

Advocates argue that unlike speeding, or running a red light, “these are not things that are endangering people’s lives in any way,” said Johnson. “As a former prosecutor, I know that there are prosecutors and police officers who firmly believe that these steps are necessary for public safety, but that’s just not what we see in the data.”

Cities including Oakland and Berkeley in California have gone as far as proposing non-police responses to traffic violations, but those plans have yet to gain traction. And even narrower reforms have drawn opposition from law enforcement and politicians who say they take away favored policing strategies.

An Inequitable ‘Rite of Passage’

Last year, Philadelphia became the first city to make eight low-level offenses, like having a missing bumper or an item hanging from a rearview mirror, insufficient cause for pulling someone over. The window to replace a late registration was extended to 60 days, and if only one taillight is out, cops will leave it be. Drivers can still be fined or ticketed for such offenses, but they can’t be the only reason police make a stop. 

The effort was led by councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who said growing up in Philadelphia, he felt like being pulled over was a grim “rite of passage” as a Black man.

“I’ve been pulled over as an educator, a political candidate, a government employee, and even after winning the Democratic nomination,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Tribune

“We still have more work to do as it relates to addressing this issue of driving while Black.”

When he heard of Nichols’ death in Memphis, Thomas said he remembered his own experiences with a particular traffic stop that could have ended in violence. “My instinct was to really just thank God, thank the creator, that that situation didn’t end much worse than it did,” he told Bloomberg CityLab.

Data showed that in Philadelphia, not only were minor traffic stops invasive and humiliating, as Thomas has described them, they were largely ineffective at keeping illegal items off the streets: Of the more than 300,000 traffic stops made in Philly between October 2018 and September 2019, only about 1% of them turned up drugs or a gun, according to the local public defender’s office. Black drivers made up 72% of those stopped, but were 34% less likely than White drivers to be found holding anything illegal. 

After a long, collaborative process to draft and redraft the policy, the legislation, called Driving Equality, started being enforced in March 2022. Almost a year into the change, preliminary data from the program shows that overall traffic stops are down significantly, says Thomas, and that there’s an increase in the likelihood of finding weapons during those stops. But it also shows that Black people are still disproportionately being pulled over

“We still have more work to do as it relates to addressing this issue of driving while Black,” said Thomas. “No matter how much body camera footage we have, or what laws are put in place, until we see some serious systemic change, these incidents are unfortunately going to continue to happen.”

Last month, San Francisco became the latest city to follow Philadelphia’s model. On Jan. 11, its police commission, the policymaking body for the San Francisco Police Department, voted to prohibit stops for nine violations that data showed only led to gun recoveries and arrests less than 2% of the time. The commission focused on barring categories of stops that were “significant different drivers of racial disparities,” “not valuable investigative tools,” and “not contributing to public safety,” said Kevin Benedicto, an attorney who sits on San Francisco’s police commission.

San Francisco’s new policy also limits the circumstances under which officers can conduct pretext stops more broadly, by explicitly requiring reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a criminal offense, and requires data collection and reporting. The next step is for the proposal to be sent to negotiation with San Francisco Police Officers’ Association before the policy gets implemented department-wide.

“Reducing the number of stops made for low-level offenses will allow the Department to redirect resources and time to more effective public safety strategies, including prioritizing traffic safety to reduce injuries and fatalities,” the policy reads, “while also helping to fulfill its obligation to accord every person equal treatment under the law.”

In the past, San Francisco Mayor London Breed has said she supports the ban on pretext stops but is concerned about the safety implications for pedestrians. “Banning the police from enforcing moving violations and dangerous behaviors that could result in injury or death makes no sense,” she said at a meeting last year.

Repeals and Lawsuits

A trailblazing Virginia state law enacted in 2021 upholds similar standards across the state, barring law enforcement from stopping cars only for their tinted windows or a busted tail light — or for the smell of weed. But lawmakers have been trying to repeal it or roll it back ever since. A bipartisan group of lawmakers voted to reinstate noisy exhaust pipes as a reason to pull someone over last year. The Republican-controlled House voted for a broader repeal of the law last month, but it’s more likely a Democrat-controlled Senate will vote to keep the current rules intact.Cities are changing fast.

Brad Haywood, a public defender and the founder of the criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia, which pushed for the legislation, says he hopes Nichols’ death will strike a nerve with lawmakers and reinforce why the policy is needed. An NBC News investigation found that in the first four months the law was in effect, the number of Black drivers searched dropped 40% even as overall stops increased slightly.

“Our view was that if you reduce the number of unnecessary interactions between police and community, then you’re necessarily going to reduce the opportunities for use of force or injustice at the hands of police,” Haywood said. “If you try to reduce those interactions, you’re also going to reduce racial disparities at large.”

In Pittsburgh, which replicated Philadelphia’s policy almost to the letter in 2021, resistance is coming from within the police department. Last month, the acting police chief directed local officers not to follow the rules and start enforcing minor violations again. The department told local news organizations that they were following a recent change to state law regarding license plate obstruction, but did not elaborate. Cara Cruz, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh’s public safety department, said the acting chief is planning to revise the document training officers on the ordinance to “provide more clarity to officers — and to the public — on what the ordinance entails.” 

“The Department of Public Safety and the City Administration are working together and engaged in discussions to find the best solution for all involved,” she said.

Philadelphia’s own policy has not been immune to challenges, either, even though the police department helped craft the legislation and has agreed to follow it. Just weeks before Driving Equality was ultimately implemented, city officials faced a lawsuit from the Philadelphia Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, who argued that the local ordinance oversteps state law and hinders police work. The suit is still ongoing. (Updates with study on traffic stops and voting in seventh paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to show Virginia enacted, not passed, its law in 2021.)