What about Police Traffic Stop Reform Part 1: NMA E-Newsletter #603

2020 has undoubtedly been a tough year for all of us. The COVID-19 crisis has changed many aspects of our lives, and so have the protests around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

At first, the protests were against police brutality, and now they have turned into calls for police reform.

Much of the call to defund the police essentially means taking police officers out of various call scenarios such as mental health issues, welfare checks, working with the homeless, and even traffic enforcement. This idea of defunding scares many who believe that police are still necessary for keeping the peace. The national debate on what police should be in a community is an important one.

A traffic stop, for instance, is when most people encounter police. Many feel intimidated and afraid for their lives when stopped by the police for something as simple as having a deodorizer hanging from their rearview mirror as in Michigan.

Motorist racial profiling and illegal vehicle searches have been a regular part of the police toolbox for a long time. Such actions shatter the trust between community and law enforcement, violate constitutional rights of citizens, and often result in lawsuits that cost taxpayers millions of dollars to settle.

By the same token, police will often tell you that traffic stops, the most frequent enforcement encounter with the public, create security anxiety for them too because the stop itself can create uncertain situations.

For years, the NMA has offered guidance to drivers on how to best handle traffic stop interactions. True traffic stop reform starts with actions such as these:

Federal Reforms

  • Congress must pass legislation that prohibits the government from funding ticket-quota-based traffic enforcement campaigns.
  • All lawmakers should actively support civil asset forfeiture reform. Motorists too often are easy targets for property seizures unrelated to chargeable violations.
  • “Keeping the peace” has somehow morphed into militarized police departments in many communities. A bill such as the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act could be a step in the right direction.

State Reforms

  • Stop counties, parishes, and municipalities from funneling money garnered from traffic fines and fees back to police departments or traffic courts as a reward for ticketing activity. The conflict of interest is obvious.
  • Require better training of police officers on traffic stop protocol and de-escalation techniques.
  • Encourage local municipalities to build community-police oversight boards that set higher police accountability standards with the goal of building better public trust.
  • Provide better protection for officers who whistleblow against their departments over ticket quotas. The same protection must be afforded to police department leaders who are pressured by city officials to generate a certain level of revenue through ticketing practices.
  • Place ticket revenue caps on cities that limit traffic ticket revenue to a standard percentage of the city’s annual budget. For example, after Ferguson erupted about six years ago, Missouri capped the routine traffic violation revenue a city could take in at 20 percent of its overall revenue. Also, states must enforce this cap by placing state funding limits for cities that go over the cap and do as Arkansas did in the last several years by officially naming these towns that violate the cap, a speed trap city.
  • Fund skilled (behind-the-wheel) driver’s education for all high school students and novice drivers.

Local Reforms

  • Facilitate community-police oversight boards to set policing standards, to ensure accountability, and build public trust.
  • Endorse policies that encourage safe driving behaviors through proper engineering rather than for-profit schemes.
  • Apply legitimate ticket revenues toward road safety improvements and driver education, eliminating the incentive to use motorists as ATMs for general purpose projects that have nothing to do with driving or road-user safety.

Recent, well-publicized events have brought police-community interactions to the forefront of national debate. We encourage all NMA members to become part of that discussion, particularly at the local and state levels.

Next week, a look at some thornier issues of traffic stop reform related to questions of due process and other constitutional rights.

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