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America has a complicated relationship with law enforcement, to say the least. While part of our society still defers to cops as arbiters of righteousness, we’ve also been repeatedly exposed to the idea of police being a negative force in communities, disproportionately leveraging power and exercising the use of force in situations that don’t call for it. I think it’s fair to say that now, more than ever, Americans have mixed feelings in general about law enforcement and its purpose in society. The fact remains that the numbers surrounding policing are troublingly inequitable and skewed against people of color. Their main vector? Traffic stops.

The New York Times has reported on this exact issue with a pair of exhaustive articles that wade through the sea of the statistics surrounding the how and why of traffic stops. Not only do these traffic stops often result in more unreasonable searches and investigations, but they can also lead to an escalation that ends in tragedy.

More troubling than the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner out on the roadside is the verifiable fact that traffic tickets are counted on for municipal revenue, with patrols that are often federally funded and judged by several performance metrics which include tickets written per hour. It seems harder to claim that public safety is the primary interest here, or the subtext informs that conclusion at the very least. It begs the question of why these stops really happen: are they for safety or for money? More importantly, why do they cost lives at all?

Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What Happened, Why It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.

What Happened

The New York Times just released two big stories: “Why Many Police Traffic Stops Turn Deadly” and “The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops.” These are both powerful and important pieces of news explaining, in-depth, the serious realities of traffic stops that you might have become accustomed to scrolling by on social media.

According to The Times, traffic stops are a vector for substantial amounts of tax revenue across hundreds of towns and municipalities. Not only do more than 730 small towns make more than 10-percent of their total revenue from small fines and fees, but over $600 million of taxpayer dollars are also spent yearly on highway safety grants that directly subsidize ticket writing in several states. 

Though the explicit goal of these grants isn’t ticket quotas, a heavily considered performance metric is the amounts of tickets written in a given time period. From The Times:

“The Virginia grants are a fraction of the roughly $600 million that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sends to states each year. Lucia Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said it did not encourage or require quotas or targets for grant recipients.

But a review of state grant applications found that the number of traffic stops is a common performance measure. In Arkansas, for instance, the goal was “three vehicle stops per hour” during grant-funded patrols, while in Madison, S.D., officers were required to “obtain two citations per grant hour.”

NYT

Some statistics are really eye-opening. Henderson, a town situated along Interstate 10 in Lousiana, collected $1.7 million in fines in 2019. This amounts to 89 percent of its general revenues for a town of 2,000 people. In 2012, Officers were even accused of receiving illegal cash rewards there.

This funneling of federal money towards traffic stops has had a deadly consequence: escalation and subsequent shootings by armed law enforcement officers on generally unarmed civilians. Increasing the number of traffic stops and incentivizing officers to hand out more and more citations results in more searches and more “fishing” by officers to find more citable violations that generate cash for towns. Within those who are cited, we find a disproportionately black and brown group of people.

In Newburgh Heights, Ohio $3 million of traffic fines makes up half of the total city revenue. 22 percent of folks who live in Newburgh Heights are black. More than 76 percent of insurance and license violations, and 63 percent of speeding cases, out of 4,000 studied by The Times involved black motorists.

Some of these small, ticket revenue-heavy municipalities have a peculiar style of court called a mayor’s court, where the mayor presides over minor civil and criminal matters like traffic tickets. The ACLU calls them “shadowy and unaccountable quasi-judicial system that wrings revenue from drivers.” The U.S. Supreme Court “flagged the inherent conflict in Ohio mayors imposing fines to pay “marshals, inspectors and detectives” who, in turn, generated cases.” Basically, the mayors of these towns preside over the entire financial security of their towns in courts of their control, resulting in disproportionately high amounts of citations and incentives local police to write more tickets.

Add officer ego to the mix and we get a phenomenon called contempt of cop, a play on contempt of court. It is not a legal term but jargon used by police officers for people who disrespect officers or disobey orders, resulting in harsher fines or even arbitrary detention of individuals. Put simply, it’s a knee-jerk reaction that often results in police misconduct, and can even lead to unnecessarily aggressive encounters. Add racial bias or ego and it can become incendiary.

“In many cases, local police officers, state troopers or sheriff’s deputies responded with outsize aggression to disrespect or disobedience — a driver talking back, revving an engine or refusing to get out of a car, what officers sometimes call “contempt of cop.”

NYT

Experts quoted by The Times cite police training as a primary issue in this behavior. The most common interaction between police officers and regular folks are traffic stops. Police officers are taught with “alarmist training about vehicle stops [that] has made officers too quick to shoot at times, resulting in needless killings.” 

“Officers have killed more than 5,000 civilians since Sept. 30, 2016, according to data on police killings collected by The Washington Post and the research groups Mapping Police Violence and Fatal EncountersThe Times identified the more than 400 unarmed drivers and passengers who were not under pursuit for a violent crime.”

NYT

Why It Matters

Traffic stops are a regular occurrence on roads and highways in the United States. The truth of the matter is that the police should exist to protect and serve, while stories like these NYT reports pretty clearly indicate that they exist to generate revenue and exert control over any interaction with civilians. It creates a toxic atmosphere around the most basic of police interactions that most people will ever have.

I have personally had a police officer, a federally trained one, raise his voice at me and say “you are not taking control of this situation” after he asked me to pop the hood of my car with no real probable cause. He considered my Cobb license plate frame enough to be suspicious of illegal modifications that were non-existent. Though I protested within the boundaries of not getting detained, he allowed himself into my car without my permission and I quickly recognized that my rights had been waived for me. I popped the hood for him to avoid further incidents.

This encounter could have gotten much worse if I got a grumpier cop. Many folks weren’t so lucky. I still will never shake the unease I have whenever I see a police car trailing behind, an unease that many Americans feel that should not be felt. We shouldn’t fear the people who are supposed to protect and serve us, but they wield the power to end lives in the physical and legal sense. Most cannot afford a night in jail or a several hundred dollar fine. For some people that suffer so much, squeezing folks even tighter with a traffic fine in the name of federal funding and not in the name of safety is an insult.

Police training and funding are directly responsible for this. Traffic stops generate money and municipalities are generally not shying away from these schemes. Police officers are trained to fear and have outsized reactions, to believe that traffic stops are the most dangerous activity they will regularly do. Yet research by The Times says otherwise.

“In fact, because the police pull over so many cars and trucks — tens of millions each year — an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million, excluding accidents, two studies have shown. At stops for common traffic infractions, the odds are as low as 1 in 6.5 million, according to a 2019 study by Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas.”

Police hold the authority in a given situation and it is their responsibility to wield it responsibly. While officers are trained to fear the people they serve and are allowed carte blanche if they claim their life was in danger. 

“Can you prosecute a police officer for a killing at a vehicle stop?” asked Mr. Gill, the Salt Lake County prosecutor. “Theoretically, you can. But practically it becomes virtually impossible.”

“The legal standard,” he said, “overwhelmingly errs on the side of sheltering police misconduct.”

NYT

What To Look For Next

With the recent increase in racial and police activism and a slight but palpable legal shift towards police accountability, things may just change. Larger police departments are changing training methods and some are even pivoting away from traffic stops entirely for low-level infractions. There is a clear pattern, however. Wealthier cities that are not so dependent on revenues from fines and have a strong tax base are implementing these policies. Smaller towns that survive off of traffic stops have no incentive to change.

Only powerful and decisive change will be able to fix these problems. Where that leadership will come from is yet to be seen. Police department culture and decades of police training are harder to shake, however. The issue of police misconduct is ever-present, with folds and weaves of officer protection imbued in the law at all levels. This incredible reporting by The Times only makes this clearer. We could not cover the sheer depth of the reporting and we strongly recommend that you read them in full.

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