Op-Ed: How Berkeley Is De-Policing Traffic Enforcement

Photo: Jerome Paulos
Photo: Jerome Paulos

Editor’s Note: A version of this article will appear in Transportation Alternatives’s Vision Zero Cities Journal as part of the 2021 Vision Zero Cities Conference, Oct. 20-22, including walking and biking tours on Oct. 22. You can register for the virtual conference (and for New York City residents, in-person tours) at visionzerocities.org.

Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken brake light. Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Byron Lee Williams was stopped for biking without a light. All three died at the hands of police allegedly in the name of traffic safety.

VZC-logo-2021The headline “Routine Traffic Stop Turns Deadly” is all too common in this country. It can never be truly known just how many others in similar circumstances suffered such an unjust fate. The practice of pretextual stops, in which minor traffic violations are used as the basis to stop and search road users suspected of more serious criminal activity, coupled with the racial biases that permeate this country to this day, too often escalate into use of force or unnecessary arrests that disproportionately harm Black Americans. These issues challenge every city, and here in Berkeley, we are hoping our city can take a leading role in addressing them. Consistent with Vision Zero principles, we want to ensure all street users feel and are safe from harm while in public space. To achieve this vision we have a duty to work to end police violence associated with traffic enforcement.

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor re-ignited a national debate around policing and public safety last year. That movement swept local governments and American cities, pushing municipalities to closely examine the fundamental roles of police, and consider whether various responsibilities could be better administered by non-police entities. According to the Stanford Policing Project, police pull over more than 20 million motorists every year, making traffic stops the most common interaction Americans have with police. Thus, a serious discussion of the role of modern policing is incomplete without addressing traffic enforcement.

In her book “Policing the Open Road,” author and legal historian Sarah Seo chronicles how the rise of the car opened the door to more intrusive policing with disastrous consequences for racial equity. Seo details how, though the Fourth Amendment provides constitutional protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, jurists have continually interpreted the clause narrowly in the context of cars, enabling a massive surge in deeply discretionary policing practices across the country. New criminal procedures were developed that accommodated, rather than limited, police intervention and effectively sanctioned police discrimination. Constitutional challenges to unjust traffic stops failed in court, leaving Black Americans with few tools to defend themselves against frequent searches and stops.

In July 2019, almost a year before the tragic death of George Floyd, Minneapolis’s largest transportation-advocacy group, Our Streets Minneapolis, announced that it did not support traffic enforcement as a tool for enhancing street safety. The press release opens: “At Our Streets Minneapolis we firmly believe traffic enforcement is not a good strategy to make streets better places to bike, walk, and roll.” The organization’s statement was premised on two key theses: (1) increased traffic enforcement would amplify racial disparities, and (2) street safety could be better achieved through smarter street design. Studies conducted in Minneapolis found stark disparities in traffic law enforcement for Black bicyclists and motorists. Though they make up only 18 percent of Minneapolis residents, data from 2019 showed that Black and African-American residents received 70 percent of vehicle searches and 68 percent of body searches at traffic stops.

A poster adorns the Old City Hall building in Berkeley, California in 2017. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
A poster adorns the Old City Hall building in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The same story can be told in virtually every major city in America, and Berkeley is not an exception. A 2021 City Auditor’s report and a 2018 Center for Policing Equity report found that Black drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists are stopped at much higher rates by Berkeley police than their representation in the population.

In Berkeley, we are working to change this story. Local transportation and social-justice advocates such as Walk Bike Berkeley and East Bay for Everyone have helped lead the nationwide call to reimagine the role of policing in traffic enforcement. And in July 2020, Berkeley’s City Council approved a series of policing reforms related to traffic enforcement, crisis response, and more. Council referred several tasks to city staff: prohibit police from conducting discretionary pretext stops based on minor traffic violations; transfer police traffic enforcement (and other duties) to unarmed civilians; and create an equity-focused Berkeley Department of Transportation (BerkDOT). Moreover, Council empowered staff to engage the community in a public process to reimagine public safety.

Photo: Gabrielle Lurie
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie

Since then, the work has been underway. As with all endeavors into uncharted territory, it is not without its challenges. But we know that Berkeley is asking itself the right questions, questions that every municipality in the country should be asking. Our current model of policing is broken, and our current approaches to traffic enforcement have not succeeded in achieving true street safety. Is there a better way?

Berkeley’s efforts can be captured in three pillars:

  • First, we are working to reduce and eliminate the practice of pretextual stops in our police department. Council has directed staff to focus the basis for traffic stops on safety, and making stops for low-level offenses the lowest priority. This work continues, and the city recently approved more budget allocations to assist with implementation and retraining police officers.
  • Second, the city is exploring how to reduce the footprint of the police department in transportation and lift up more effective and equitable mechanisms for achieving street safety through a new Department of Transportation. In the near term, that means potentially transferring parking enforcement, school-crossing-guard management, and some collision response, investigation, data collection, analysis, and reporting functions to BerkDOT. In addition to integrating these functions with the city’s other transportation work, we hope to also refocus them to prioritize equity, safety, and mobility.
  • Third, we are engaged in the longer-term advocacy work to create a path toward unarmed civilian enforcement of traffic law and to truly de-police traffic enforcement. California state law is highly prescriptive about who can and who cannot enforce the vehicle code. We hope to see state legislation introduced which would grant local municipalities the flexibility to pilot a civilian traffic-enforcement pilot program, in order to demonstrate that most traffic laws can be enforced by unarmed enforcement officers rather than by police. This is a much bigger lift, but momentum is growing.

Mobility justice is racial justice. Berkeley can lead the nation in refocusing its traffic enforcement efforts on equitable enforcement, creating a cooperative compliance model rather than a punitive model. We know that all eyes are on Berkeley as we endeavor to implement these significant reforms and truly redesign what traffic enforcement looks like, but we need more allies. City councils in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis have taken similar action to push towards new models of traffic enforcement. Every city will face distinct and unique challenges and roadblocks in their journey towards radical new models of public safety. To achieve our vision of a more just world where all Americans can feel safe getting around, we must learn from one another and be unafraid to try new things and challenge our existing enforcement models.

Rigel Robinson (@RigelRobinson) is a Berkeley City Councilmember. Ben Gerhardstein (@BGerhardstein) is a public-health professional, former City of Berkeley transportation commissioner, and co-founder of Walk Bike Berkeley, an all-volunteer group that advocates to make walking and biking in Berkeley safe, low-stress, and fun for people of all ages and abilities.

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