Solving America’s Traffic Cop Problem

Two summers ago, calls to defund the police swept across the nation, spurred by high-profile incidents of police brutality against people of color. While the voices demanding this change may have quieted, with many Americans now calling for an increase in local police budgets, there’s a specific, particularly dangerous area of policing that could be eliminated quite easily: traffic stops. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk with independent reporter, Brett Simpson, about the long-standing use of police to arbitrate the rules of the road. We consider alternative models to road safety being attempted in this country and in Europe, examine how new technology could keep our roads safe without those roving fleets of lethally-armed traffic cops, and explore privacy issues related to these innovations.

Narrator 0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Brett Simpson  0:27  Just a simple, common sense solution, like why do we need an armed officer trained with a warrior mindset to tell us that we need to update our license plate tags? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a confusing allocation of resources and it’s a source of violence that disproportionately affects black and brown people.

Narrator  0:56  Two summers ago, calls to defund the police swept across the nation, spurred by high profile incidents of police brutality against people of color. While the voices demanding this change may have quieted with many Americans now calling for an increase in local police budgets. There’s a specific particularly dangerous area of policing that could be eliminated quite easily. traffic stops. This week on Sea Change Radio, we talk with independent reporter Brett Simpson, about the long standing use of police to arbitrate the rules of the road. We consider alternative models to road safety being attempted in this country and in Europe. Examine how new technology could keep our roads safe without those roving fleets of lethally armed traffic cops, and explore privacy issues related to these innovations.

Alex Wise  2:07  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by journalist Brett Simpson. Brett, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Brett Simpson  2:12  Thanks so much for having me, Alex,

Alex Wise  2:14  So you have a new piece in The Atlantic entitled Why cars don’t deserve the right of way, the simplest way to make roads safer and reduce police violence at the same time. It’s very interesting. And a concept that I’ve kind of wondered about as we have more and more high profile police violence episodes unfold on our TV screens. Inevitably, every year, almost every month, there’s some new video of police abuse and so much of it seems to be surrounding the traffic cop. Why don’t you explain why it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way in terms of our police force being our traffic cops.

Brett Simpson  2:57  Yeah, so this story centers around the city of Berkeley, which in July of 2020, you know, when there was this, you know, after following the, the killing of George Floyd there was across the nation, this movement toward rethinking and reimagining the police force and their prevalence in our lives. And the city of Berkeley was unusual in that, in its police reform, it really targeted the traffic cop. And in doing so, it actually really targeted police violence at its root. I mean, as we’ve seen, for so many black and brown drivers stops for minor infractions like a broken taillight or speeding too often turned deadly. You know, we have Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, and most recently, Dante Wright, those are all during police traffic stops, you know, in so many more. So I followed this initiative over the over the course of the year and the same time really looked into the history of traffic enforcement and how police power has really grown in concert with the prevalence of the automobile and the violence of the automobile on our streets.

Alex Wise  4:13  Yes, take us back 100 years, if you will, before the prevalence of the automobile and what role the Beat Cop might have had in a community versus that beat cop today driving around in on their motorcycle in their car and how they engage with the citizenry in a vastly different way.

Brett Simpson  4:34  Right. Yeah, this is this is a really interesting kind of historical point that many of us, I think, forget. And that is that or maybe don’t know, and that is that. Before the car, ordinary citizens rarely came in contact with law enforcement. And in fact, law enforcement budgets were much smaller. And police bureaus were, you know, maybe a little more disordered. They had reputations for being corrupt. This is something really well illustrated by historian Sarah SEO, who wrote a book in 2019 called policing the open road. And she traced the origins in the development of police power, as something that was really a response to this automobile that was tearing through the streets and in 1910s and 1920s. So just taking a taking us back to, you know, maybe the year 1900, you had citizens that had a really a really well negotiated relationship with each other on the street, where the street was a place of commerce of activity. Through you know, social interactions, you would see horses, you would see children, you would see cards, it was all a socially negotiated space, and one that, you know, police may or may not play a role in. But once the had these automobiles that were just bringing all of this speed and horsepower, they were wreaking havoc on the streets and police forces really stepped in to solve that problem and become that official that could help negotiate those power relationships. And that is something that actually started in Berkeley, the father of modern American policing, as he’s known now, August Fullmer, was Berkeley’s first police chief. And he was the first to put he was the first to put cops in cars. And that was part of his vision for this new kind of cop who was tasked with solving crimes. So that that origin story and the kind of the century of repercussions that August Fullmer, you may or may not have really seen coming was of interest to me as well. But here we have Berkeley, which reimagined policing 100 years ago with all of these consequences in response to the automobile, is now taking another shot at it and really looking to extricate the traffic cop.

Alex Wise  7:11  Let’s turn from August Fullmer’s solutions and look at a concerned citizen, if you will, Darrell Owens, who you spotlight in the piece and the solutions that he’s proposing to his city in Berkeley.

Brett Simpson  7:24  Yeah, so Darrell Owens, he’s really the member of a large coalition that is crosses, you know, many different disciplines, from climate and street safety activists, to racial justice advocates, who are all kind of looking at the same problem, which is that there’s something in our streets that’s broken. We see police everywhere, monitoring corners, giving tickets to people on their bikes, and yet our streets aren’t getting any safer. We still have pedestrian injuries, and just, you know, car accidents all the time. And so, Darrell, is something of a transportation nerd. And he was, you know, looking at the data and just seeing how, and he really, you know, he only rides public transportation, he, he rides his bike, and he’s seeing how cars are the root of both injury and violence for the ordinary, just ordinary people, but also, as a young black man, he’s he sees in his family and in his community, that cars are the source of interactions with the with the police.

Alex Wise  8:36  Why don’t you walk us through the proposals that he made to city council.

Brett Simpson  8:40  Yeah, so Daryl Owens, as part of this BerkDot coalition proposed shifting traffic enforcement, away from the police to unarmed department of transportation workers. So this is kind of saying the same people who may be enforced the rules of the road are the ones who design them and the ones who can kind of get at the root cause of the problems with the street. And so it’s a really kind of the way that Owens would characterize it, just a simple, common sense solution, like why do we need an armed officer trained with a warrior mindset to tell us that we need to update our license plate tags. It’s just it doesn’t make any sense. It’s a confusing allocation of resources, and it’s a source of violence that disproportionately affects black and brown people. And so, yeah, the proposal is kind of as part of a larger, a larger reimagining that eventually would furnish this Department of Transportation with workers who could target and redesign the highest injury corridors in the city and you know, it To do all of the really important transportation fixes that would hopefully reduce, at the same time the power of the automobile and the power of police in the city. Straight from 12th grade in the junior college.

(Music Break)  10:29

Alex Wise  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. And I’m speaking with independent reporter Brett Simpson. So Brett, I guess the people who would be against this change would say, well, technology has evolved where we can have speed cams, and we can update registration tags, etc. But that encroachment is also something that people fear. Where do we find that balance?

Brett Simpson  11:36  Yeah, this is something that I don’t even get to in my piece. But Mothers Against Drunk Driving did come out against the bill immediately. And I think that it is interesting to just acknowledge that cars are dangerous and drivers can be dangerous. And you know, we do need to address this danger. It’s really, you know, do we need an armed cop addressing this danger?

Alex Wise  11:59  What could a potential enforcement of drunk driving laws look like by removing officers? Is it possible?

Brett Simpson  12:08  Yeah, I think I think that’s a really thorny question. And it’s, for the for the vast majority of cases, whether it’s speeding enforcement doesn’t change driver behavior. I think that the model would be that if there is someone driving recklessly, in so many of these police reform measures, and a civilian enforcer would be able to escalate to a police officer, and maybe then a police officer does get involved in the most dangerous situations or you know, like a carjacking or, or a high speed chase, like all of those are things that can still be in the wheelhouse of the police force. And in fact, they’re, they’re essential, and they’re well trained, they’re trained for situations like that. They’re not necessary for situations where someone, you know, forgets to signal before they turn.

Alex Wise  13:00  And so much of our discussion up to now has been assuming that the officer citizen contact occurs in a urban setting, you know, where we have the option of bike lanes and public transportation and that police are checking for tags. But if you’re in a rural setting where there are less roads than almost every road is a freeway or a highway. And so the lines between highway patrol force and regular cops on the beat, it kind of becomes blurred, doesn’t it?

Brett Simpson  13:35  Yeah, that’s an interesting point. And I think to that, one thing that’s an opportunity that Berkeley sees is that because it’s a city, like you say, because it’s an urban core, it has a history of being a multimodal, incredibly walkable, dense space that a lot of suburban areas, you know, you don’t you don’t have the opportunity to walk to the grocery store, you have to put yourself at risk of interaction with law enforcement, just to carry out your day. And that’s  kind of how we’ve been it goes into the history of you know, how we sort of chose to design our spaces in our areas is just favoring the vehicle. And in that was a choice and I think that it was it. Also I touched on in my article, it was really a choice paid for in furnished in part by wealthy automobile clubs and, you know, big auto and big tire, Firestone. All of these interests that were really set on entrenching the automobile in the American end in American society in the American mindset, and you know, whether it’s criminalizing jaywalking and jaywalking is actually a pejorative that, that was kind of crafted by the by these early like big auto propaganda interests. And it’s referring to a J seed, which is kind of like a piece of hay that they said that farmers would chew on. So the implication is that a truly cosmopolitan urban citizen knows to keep to the sidewalk, and only, only a jaywalker would make the perilous mistake of getting in the automobiles way. So I think it’s really interesting the way that these power dynamics also play out in, you know, rural or suburban areas where there’s just not much opportunity to do anything without getting in your car. And the American legal system has also made it permissible for the police to search your car without, without a warrant. And, and so you’re, you’re it’s this paradox where the symbol of freedom is also relinquishing power, and, and, and your personal freedoms, you know, the second that you get inside of it,


Alex Wise  16:28  Brett, you were just talking about the privacy issues surrounding vehicles. And it’s one of the places where Americans are most vulnerable to police, if not the most vulnerable is like when you’re in your car, you’re pretty much at the whim of, of law enforcement. But on the flip side, we have technology which is encroaching us in many ways. And the idea of having GPS devices in all of our cars where police force could track us might be able to keep us safer in an emergency. But a lot of people would be quite hesitant about introducing these kind of concepts. We can also look at other countries where speed cameras work, we saw we did a piece on Sea Change Radio a long time ago about gamification. And I think it was Sweden that instituted a lottery system. And everybody who drove across this strip of freeway, which had a lot of incidents of speeding, if they were under the speed limit, their license plate was registered into a national lottery, and every week or month or whatever, somebody would win somebody who was not speeding in this area. And they saw that the average speeds went significantly down in this area. So the point of that piece was that we can gamify things. And also we can have positive incentives for citizens to kind of engage in things as opposed to always being negative and fear based. But so we can look at technology working in some ways. But I can imagine trying to implement that in rural Alabama with speed cams, and having all your license plates registered into a lottery and it may not be met with such enthusiasm as it was in Sweden.

Brett Simpson  18:22  It’s really complicated thinking about you know, okay, if we don’t have police enforcing these laws, do we replace them with cameras, and then that opens up a whole set of privacy concerns and surveillance concerns that I think are absolutely merited. But I think that something that gets lost in all of those conversations, is the design of the road itself, and the way that we can mitigate danger by rethinking that.

Alex Wise  18:50  That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. But can you give us an example of what you’re thinking of in terms of the road design?

Brett Simpson  18:57  Yeah, so most American traffic engineering playbooks were devised for efficiency, not safety, they treat throughput as the goal in because traffic congestion was for so long considered the traffic problem, not safety. So for decades, we’ve placed an unrealistic responsibility on the individual driver and their behavior to override this incentive to just go faster. So take like a multiple Lane resident residential Boulevard, that wide straight lane. traffic engineers will tell you now they they coax us into higher speeds, they lull us into a sense of security. And, you know, it’s just counter intuitive design like like crosswalks across a right turn merge lane that are so dangerous, where engineers are kind of queuing up a collision course of their own devising, but the data bears out that if you narrow the road, you protect by claims Add medians, drivers will slow down. And that slowdown is key because a person hit by a car driving 30 miles per hour is twice as likely to die as when going 25 miles per hour.

Alex Wise  20:13  Right. And we’ve had recent discussions here in where I live in San Francisco about lowering the speed limit around the city from 25 to 20. And there’s data that shows that that can really make a big difference in terms of pedestrian and bike fatalities. From a driver standpoint, I, I just kind of go, the speed that feels natural. If you’ve been driving for as long as I have,  and you get a feel for how fast you should be driving or shouldn’t be driving in certain areas. But the numbers actually do matter. And when you take millions and millions of miles, it adds up. Right?

Brett Simpson  20:49  Right. And traffic engineers will argue that that feeling that intuition that you’re describing, is designed into the street, and you are constantly taking in these signals that let you know how fast you should be going. And those signals we’ve, we’ve built the set of signals that is entirely at odds with what’s safest for the ordinary citizen. Hmm, one last point that I think goes back to this proposal in Berkeley like that, once we decide to accept personal blame for the violence built into our roads. Humans seem to be our best defense against it. And so we equip this increasingly organized motor, motorized and militarized force to fight back against us. And but we don’t really have to think of this as a human an individual behavior problem writ large at all, you know, maybe in individual cases.

Alex Wise  21:49  It’s a design and policy issue.

Brett Simpson  Exactly.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking with independent reporter Brett Simpson. So Brett, let’s look at it from the police standpoint, I always have heard and have thought that that’s got to be one of the most dangerous and frightening parts of being a cop is to have to come up to a car, you don’t know what you’re going to expect they could pull out a gun and shoot you that’s kind of the idea behind having armed police is that we have armed citizens as well. So they have to protect themselves and how do police unions and units? How have they addressed these new types of proposals to remove officers from face to face vehicular oriented interactions?

Brett Simpson  23:36  Yeah, I think this is a really interesting point. Because one one key counter argument is, you know, you take examples like Sweden and Norway and that have these you know, amazing numbers with, you know, not needing a traffic cop to enforce their safety. Yet, these not needing an armed traffic cop yet these countries also don’t have such an armed citizenry. And so this argument like well, if, if any, if any ordinary American might have a gun in their car, then you don’t you don’t know what to expect when you approach the window.

Alex Wise  24:17  So I guess the question is, should they be approaching the window in the first place?

Brett Simpson  24:21  Yeah, at the same time and I and I did speak with many officers, Berkeley and otherwise for this story didn’t make it into the in the piece but nobody likes being a traffic enforcer. You know, it’s kind of maybe not nobody, but it just kind of seemed to be the worst part of the job and when you any, any cop can can do that. And you know, or sometimes that will be there that will be there beat the rotation for a little while, and overwhelmingly they talk About It with a sense of dread. And also it’s sort of a distraction from their really essential duties that they’re performing in society, which is investigating and solving crimes, and really where they should be putting their energy.

Alex Wise  25:17  But I guess that there’s also a financial element, I imagine speaking towards the defund the police movements, we think about these militarized police forces and all their toys and gadgets. And then also the idea that there could be layoffs that maybe we don’t need as many police officers if we don’t have a fleet of traffic cops out there giving tickets.

Brett Simpson  25:40  Right. I mean, I think that when you get down to the nitty gritty, yeah, police budgets are, they’re often opaque, and there is the threat and the union, there’s a threat of downsizing and the unions get very defensive. But when you talk to, you know, like the mayor of Berkeley and Berkeley police chief, they are both hopeful that like, hey, this will make our police forces better, to save them time. Where they’re, they’re kind of overwhelmed by these by these requests, where they don’t want to be spending their time, you know, whether it is somebody having a, you know, a mental health crisis, as we’ve, we’ve seen examples in Oregon, you know, having civilian first responders to mental health crises in so many so many other cities beyond Portland. It’s really similar. It’s, you know, where it’s not about, you know, reducing headcount in police forces. It’s about how and where are these officers spending their time? And is there a better way to? Is there a better way to allocate that maybe if we start the conversation there with these Korean police forces, then that is a you know, a more maybe a more palatable conversation to the forces themselves. But yeah, it’s, it’s certainly, I think, a thorny issue.

Alex Wise  27:19  And one with race right at the center, if you think about the policy makers versus the vulnerable populations.

Brett Simpson  27:26  Right. And I think that, you know, the goal to reduce ordinary citizens interaction with the police, which overwhelmingly disproportionately affects communities of color, I think, is is a really great starting point for so many of these police reform proposals.

Alex Wise  27:48  Well, the piece is called “Why cars don’t deserve the right of way” it’s in the Atlantic. We’ll link to it at Brett Simpson, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Brett Simpson  27:59  Thank you so much, Alex.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by The Meters, The Bottle Rockets and The Clash. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcasts. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.