The Berkeley City Council approved a measure that would create a new Department of Transportation and remove police from traffic stops. The use of unarmed public works officials to enforce traffic laws is aimed at reducing racial profiling and law enforcement contacts that can escalate into violence, especially for Black drivers.
The Berkeley City Council measure removing traffic from law enforcement is the first of its kind in the U.S. and is likely to be emulated as other cities adopt public safety reforms following the death of George Floyd in May.
Studies have shown Black motorists are much more likely to be stopped by police than whites for minor traffic infractions that turn fatal. For example, Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed after he was pulled over for a busted tail light during a traffic stop in 2016 in Minnesota. Sandra Bland, 28, died in a jail cell three days after being stopped for failing to signal when changing lanes in Texas in 2015.
‘If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on the single most common interaction Americans have with law enforcement, and that’s traffic stops.
“It’s been an incredible cry from the community to look at law enforcement, to look at the role of police in this country and in this city and calling on us, especially as a very progressive city, to lead the way and trying some new things, pushing the edge when we can,” said Rigel Robinson, a Berkeley city council member who sponsored the proposal.
The measure calls on the city manager to convene a “community engagement process” to pursue the creation of a separate Berkeley transportation department to handle transportation projects as well as enforcement of parking and traffic. The goal is to implement the change through the next fiscal year’s budget. Berkeley residents wouldn’t see a difference on the roads until next summer at the very earliest, Mr. Robinson said.
“It’s a gargantuan task,” he said. “But if we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on the single most common interaction Americans have with law enforcement, and that’s traffic stops,” he said.
The Berkeley Police Department did not comment on council legislation. But, the police unions for Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco issued a joint statement saying that reckless driving, speeding and driving while under the influence are all dangerous “traffic” enforcement violations.
“We do not believe that the public wants lax enforcement of those incidents by non-sworn individuals,” the statement read. “Traffic stops are some of the most dangerous actions police officers take. What happens when the felon with an illegal gun gets pulled over by the parking police? Nothing good, we’re sure of that.”
Berkeley ‘s population is 54% white, 20% Asian, 11% Latino and 8% African American, but African Americans accounted for half of the 608 traffic stops conducted by Berkeley police between mid-March and mid-June this year. White drivers accounted for less than a quarter of all stops during that same time period .
“It’s hugely significant,” Cheryl Phillips, co-founder of the Stanford Open Policing Project at Stanford University, said of the proposal. “It has the potential to transform what is, I think, the most common interaction with police that people have.”
The Stanford study also found that Black and Latino motorists were searched far more often than whites, she said, but the searches turned up fewer drugs, guns and other contraband. She also said it’s notable that the racial disparity in stops decline after sunset, presumably because it is harder to discern the race of the driver.
In California, Black drivers were stopped by law enforcement at 2.5 times the per-capita rate of whites and searched three times as often, according to a state report issued in January by the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board. Officers were nearly three times as likely to search African Americans than whites, even though white suspects were more likely to yield contraband.
The plan, which proponents and experts believe is the first of its kind nationwide, comes as cities around the United States are examining ways to scale back, reimagine or defund their police departments after George Floyd’s death in police custody in May, which led to a widespread Black Lives Matter protest movement.
“If we’re serious about transforming the country’s relationship with police, we have to start by taking on Americans’ most common interaction with law enforcement — traffic stops,” said Rigel Robinson, a Berkeley councilman who proposed the legislation that aims to de-escalate roadside situations. “Driving while Black shouldn’t be a crime.”
Data from a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report show U.S. residents’ most common type of contact with the police was being pulled over for a traffic stop, and research has found widespread racial bias in who gets pulled over.
The unarmed public works officials would conduct parking enforcement and stop cars for violations such as blowing through a stop sign or driving without headlights.
At least a dozen cities have introduced proposals to reduce police resources in some way, but Berkeley, which also approved a $9.2 million cut to its Police Department’s budget, appears to be the first to mull a change to officers’ traffic-related duties.
Ken Barone, a researcher at Central Connecticut State University who studies racial profiling in police traffic stops, said the Berkeley plan seemed to be “heading in the right direction.”
“It’s the kind of innovation that I think we need in this very challenging time,” Mr. Barone said.
When police officers are actively looking for “hazardous moving violations,” traffic stops can be effective deterrents, Mr. Barone said, and data have not shown evidence of racial bias. The problem, he said, is when law enforcement officials use minor offenses as pretexts to pull people over and search their cars
In those cases, he said, Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at a far greater rate, despite there being no evidence that such drivers are more likely to commit low-level driving violations.
There will still be a role for police officers on Berkeley streets, for example if an unarmed official conducting a traffic stop is confronted by a violent person with a weapon.
“Those are real questions we’re going to have to answer along the way,” Mr. Robinson said.
New York Times How Berkeley Could Remove the Police From Traffic Stops
Janie Har, Associated Press July 14, 2020