Traffic stops won’t reduce violent crime — solving cases will
In communities across the United States, homicides and other violent felonies have become strikingly more common in the last two years. The public has demanded action. They haven’t gotten it.
Instead of identifying the people committing those crimes and arresting them, police are doing performative traffic stops and sporadic gun seizures — measures that too often lead to racial disparities and violence. We can do better while continuing to work to reduce the racial disparities that have plagued the criminal justice system.
Consider the much-publicized efforts to prevent violent crime by taking guns off the street. The population of the United States is about 330 million people, and those 330 million people own about 393 million guns — there are more guns than people. Meanwhile, in 2020 there were about 25,000 homicides, meaning there was one homicide for every 15,720 guns.
The bare numbers show that plucking guns here and there and hoping to curb violent crime is like grabbing a bit of sand and expecting the beach to disappear. Even in the most dangerous neighborhoods, it’s nibbling around the margins.
Meanwhile, there are about 291 million cars in the United States — 11,640 for every homicide — but it seems that in some places it’s considered rational to stop cars for minor violations as a means to stem violent crimes. As with guns, it’s wildly inefficient.
And yet, traffic stops and gun seizures are trumpeted as “doing something” about violent crimes. For example, in my home state of Minnesota, the State Police began a much-publicized traffic-stop initiative in beleaguered Minneapolis. Over one weekend in July, they made nearly 1,500 traffic stops and seized only six illegal guns. Despite resulting in no significant drop in crime, the project was celebrated and extended.
Aside from a baked-in failure to make a significant impact, traffic stops and sporadic gun seizures risk (and perhaps promise) a troubling racial disparity in their impact. The overwhelming body of evidence shows that innocent Black people are disproportionately impacted by police measures that allow discretion in individual officers to determine who is “suspicious” or warrants a traffic stop or pat-down. Tellingly, the racial disparity with traffic stops lessens at night, when officers are less likely to be able to determine the race of a driver.
So, if we care about violent gun crime (and we should) and we don’t want to just rely on traffic stops and sporadic gun seizures, what can we do?
Because violent crimes are committed repeatedly by a relatively small group of people, what we should do is focus on identifying and apprehending them directly — that is, we should use our limited resources to raise the clearance rate for violent crimes (that is, solve them), and execute outstanding warrants for those already charged with violent crimes.
Because the certainty of getting caught is a much more effective deterrent than long sentences, these two steps are key to preventing crimes. But while we are focused on stopping cars with broken tail lights and taking guns here and there, too many communities are failing at the simple task of solving crimes and putting handcuffs on the people who commit them.
In Philadelphia, Pa., for example, only 36.8 percent of fatal shootings were solved in 2020. While some might be quick to blame that on District Attorney Larry Krasner, prosecutors are not the ones who investigate cases — it’s a police problem. And it’s everywhere.
Turning back to Minneapolis, for example, a rash of carjackings was met with a clearance rate of under 15 percent in 2021. It sounds simplistic, but to reduce these crimes, which tend to be committed repeatedly by the same relatively small group of people, we need to identify them.
We also need to apprehend them. Executing warrants is a difficult task, especially when the person to be apprehended is already suspected of having committed violent acts with a gun. The disaster in Uvalde should show us how even well-armed police officers can hesitate to engage with such risks.
If we can do those two things — solve more of the most serious violent crimes and execute warrants for those crimes — we will have a much better chance at saving lives than we can get from performative shows of force during traffic stops and pat-down gun seizures.
In cities like my own Minneapolis, for some the temptation to return to the kind of policing that led to the death of George Floyd is strong. But that strong-arm style must give way to a smarter, new approach if we are to regain safety and move toward a mending of racial harm.
Mark Osler is a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis.