For decades, police academies have taught new recruits that any traffic stop could be their last and to never hesitate to use force to save their own life. They frequently show videos of the most dangerous traffic stops, instilling in the minds of officers that any stop has the potential to turn violent. TV shows such as “Cops” frequently portray a scenario in which a traffic stop quickly escalates as a motorist draws a weapon out of nowhere, and within seconds, the officer is faced with a life-or-death situation. However, the data tells a different story. A study published in the Michigan Law Review found that as a “conservative estimate,” one in every 6.5 million traffic stops end in a “felonious killing of an officer,“ one in every 361,111 end in “assault that results in serious injury to an officer“ and one in every 6,959 end in assault of any kind against an officer. In addition to the idea that violence against police officers is common at traffic stops, there is the idea that such violence is often unprovoked or unexpected. However, this was the case in just over 3 percent of traffic stops in the study. The relative infrequency of violence against officers is contrasted with the narrative that both police officers and the general public are taught. The effect of this myth is officers who do not prioritize de-escalation tactics but instead view the people they have sworn to protect as likely criminals.
When automobiles first appeared, they were navigating streets that were not meant for them. Streets that were once full of children playing, trolley lines and horse-drawn carriages soon became dominated by cars. Local governments passed laws to ensure that everyone drove safely, but these laws differed from city to city and still do. Traffic enforcement first relied on volunteers and private citizens to maintain order. This was ineffective, as drivers kept breaking laws, especially speed limits. Almost overnight, overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens suddenly became lawbreakers when they stepped into their cars. Local politicians realized that in order to enforce the law against people who considered themselves to be upstanding members of society, policing needed to be “professionalized.” Thus, the specialized, exclusive and uninformed profession that we know today as modern policing was born. August Vollmer, former police chief of Berkeley, California, who is known as “the father of modern policing,” believed that police should be focused on fighting and investigating serious crime, not enforcing traffic law. But as cars gained a larger role in the lives of many Americans, enforcing traffic law became a larger share of police time.
In the case of Carroll v. United States, the court upheld the principle of warrantless search for automobiles on the grounds that the car had significantly changed American life so much, they should be treated differently from other forms of property. This created the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment. To this day, if police officers have “probable cause,” they can stop and search any car that they please. It goes without saying that “probable cause” can be interpreted loosely and opens the door to discrimination. In other Fourth Amendment cases, the Supreme Court has used the narrative that traffic stops are dangerous to officers in order to strip citizens of their right to privacy. In Pennsylvania v. Mimms, the Supreme Court held that police officers ordering people out of cars and conducting pat-downs did not constitute a breach of the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, in the case of Maryland v. Wilson, the Supreme Court affirmed the findings in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, ruling that officers may order the passengers to step out of a vehicle in addition to the driver. The Court utilized Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) statistics from the FBI to weaken the Fourth Amendment argument on the grounds that traffic stops are dangerous to police. The issue with LEOKA statistics is that they are overly inclusive — they contain both routine stops for traffic violations as well as felony vehicle stops for non-traffic-related offenses. These rulings are the foundation of the current interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, which gives citizens little right to privacy so long as they are in their car.
Traffic stops are the most common way that people come into contact with the police. In a 2020 study by New York University, the researchers found that in their dataset of about 100 million documented traffic stops, Black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be stopped and almost twice as likely to be searched.
Given that police involvement at traffic stops poses a threat to the privacy and lives of people, especially people of color, better methods of enforcing traffic laws are desperately needed. One approach is to appoint civilians employed by local departments of transportation to enforce traffic law. The city of Berkeley, California may be heading in this direction — the city council recently voted to create a city department of transportation, called “BerkDOT,” that would completely take over the responsibility of traffic enforcement in an effort to reduce racial profiling and police brutality. BerkDOT would consist of trained, unarmed civilians who would be in charge of issuing parking tickets, responding to collisions, pulling over unsafe drivers and directing traffic, among other tasks.
If we ever want to end the violence against citizens perpetuated by systems of policing, police can no longer be the primary source of care for all of society’s ills. We cannot expect a single profession to be in charge of mental health care, traffic enforcement, wellness checks, school discipline, violent crime, et cetera and expect them to do it well. The role that policing plays in our society must be reimagined, and jobs not directly related to serious offenses need to be handled by professionals who are better equipped to find solutions.
Deana Ridenhour is a sophomore double-majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law.