Traffic stops should not be deadly, DC can lead the way
As the nation mourns Tyre Nichols, yet another Black life taken by police, activists are again demanding leaders take action to protect more lives. They can start by removing police from traffic enforcement altogether.
Traffic stops are one of the most common ways that people encounter the U.S. legal system. And like all policing interactions, traffic stops are known to disproportionately impact communities of color. Nationwide, police make 18 million traffic stops annually, roughly 50,000 stops per day. Black drivers are more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and once stopped, are more likely to be searched — often without cause. Yet, Black drivers are less likely to be found with drugs or weapons than white ones.
In Washington, D.C., a 2020 ACLU-DC analysis of Metropolitan Police Department data showed that while Black people make up less than 47 percent of the population, they are targeted for nearly 75 percent of traffic stops. Of those, 86 percent led to no law enforcement action — like a warning, ticket or arrest. For searches, almost 91 percent ended without law enforcement action.
Tyre Nichols’s killing, which authorities say was committed by police officers after a questionable traffic stop, provides a powerful and tragic real-life example of why immediate reform is needed. At least four police officers have been charged with murder.
If we want to reduce — and eventually end — police violence, municipalities can begin by removing police from traffic stops. When police initiate a traffic stop, they open a Pandora’s Box of legal enforcement discretion. During these encounters, police are permitted to investigate issues entirely unrelated to the alleged traffic violation. This unfettered discretion creates an incentive for pretextual stops, often racially motivated — because who needs probable cause when a broken taillight will suffice?
The DC Police Reform Commission, created in response to the police murder of George Floyd and the movement that followed, recommended ending police enforcement of traffic violations. The proposal would transfer traffic enforcement into the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT). The idea is to prohibit police from enforcing traffic violations that do not pose an immediate threat to public safety — examples include excessive tinting of vehicle windows or loud mufflers. Instead, unarmed DDOT workers would have the power to issue traffic and parking tickets, which would significantly reduce interactions between residents and armed police.
Other cities have also explored this proposal. Berkeley, California’s city council passed a sweeping police reform bill in 2021 that included this idea; Lansing, Mich., Los Angeles and Philadelphia are also all exploring the recommendation. However, in these other cities, state law ultimately preempts local policy, creating a potential hurdle for implementation. For instance, California state law does not allow “civilian traffic enforcement,” something Berkeley wants to change.
D.C.’s status as a territory and not a state provides a unique advantage in this space. It does not need to contend with conflicts between municipal and state law, and DDOT is under its direct control. This gives the district a bit more creativity in policy proposals and reform efforts. While D.C. does need to contend with Congress when it comes to taxation, how the city chooses to enforce traffic laws is within the district’s power.
This idea is exactly the kind of creative solution-finding we need to explore. That said, questions remain. Would DDOT workers have weapons? Would they have marked vehicles to pull people over? And even without weapons, would they have added legal protection if they engage in violence like police do? Police reportedly killed Tyre Nichols with their fists. In the end, would the proposed changes result in a mere reorganization of policing, rather than true reform? Further study and discussion should focus on these questions and explore potential solutions. Perhaps it’s time to end many of these traffic laws altogether. Until then though, our lawmakers can take concrete steps to remove police from traffic stops.
Justin Hansford is executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University School of Law and UN adviser for the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent.
Maggie Ellinger-Locke is staff attorney at Howard University School of Law, working with the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and supporting students in both the Environmental Justice and Movement Lawyering legal clinics. Previously, she was staff attorney at Greenpeace USA.
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