Last month, a traffic stop in Minnesota turned deadly when a police officer, who appeared to mistake her Taser for a handgun, shot Daunte Wright.
Officials said Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was pulled over because he had an expired car registration and something hanging from his rearview mirror. The officer fired her gun during a scuffle that began after police discovered Wright was wanted on an outstanding warrant.
In Berkeley, California, Councilmember Rigel Robinson said these kinds of interactions — where police officers are responsible for enforcing minor traffic infractions — should not be happening.
“Daunte Wright brings back so many painful situations we’ve seen play out over and over again,” Robinson said. “Names like Sandra Bland and Philando Castile are stories of traffic stops gone wrong. Stories of Black people being pulled over for minor infractions and things escalating and as a result, losing their lives.”
Last summer, the Berkeley City Council backed a process that could transform the city’s police and transportation departments by ensuring a “racial justice lens” is used in traffic enforcement and finding ways to reduce stops based on minor traffic violations.
The council signaled its intent to train unarmed public works officials, rather than police, to pull over drivers for traffic infractions. And in February, elected officials voted to de-prioritize traffic stops for low-level offenses, such as not wearing a seat belt.
In our latest Traffic Lab Ask An Expert Q&A, we spoke with Robinson, who is leading the effort to reimagine traffic enforcement.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What is your motivation to pursue these policies?
What’s been so powerful about the last year is how fed up people are with a lot of the more surface-level conversations around police reform. It’s about more than trainings. It’s about more than accountability for the individual officer who did something terrible. It’s about looking at the situation and asking ourselves why or how we allowed them to happen to the first place. Why was an armed police officer responsible for enforcing something as benign as a traffic infraction? How do we focus our public safety resources on actual issues of street safety that will reduce injuries, reduce crashes, reduce collisions and save lives?
What has Berkeley been doing to address these issues?
We took a series of motions last summer. First, within our existing Police Department, we’re looking at the practice of traffic stops and identifying and implementing ways to reduce or eliminate them. The second piece is a reorganizational question of how we can elevate traffic design and engineering so that traffic enforcement isn’t necessary. The third pillar is the longer-term, conceptual question about whether and how we can have traffic enforcement done by someone other than armed traffic enforcement officers.
What challenges do you anticipate in enacting these policies?
The challenge lies largely in state law and issues that limit the ability of local municipalities to enforce the vehicle code in any way other than with licensed police officers. The clearest way to get there is going to be introducing state legislation to grant local municipalities expanded authority to design and implement their own traffic enforcement.
How much can be done without state authority?
Any city can pass a motion right now to try to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops. The second piece around this reorganization of city operations to implement and elevate traffic design and engineering so that conventional enforcement approaches are not as necessary is critical. Every city in the country can be doing that. To this fundamental question of deep-thinking traffic enforcement itself, state law in California is highly limiting.
If police officers weren’t responsible for engaging with drivers, who would you suggest handle traffic enforcement?
Imagine treating a lot of low-level traffic offenses in a way much more similar to how a code enforcement officer might. Whether it’s responding to the situation by having the necessary tickets mailed to your address, like when you run through a toll checkpoint without paying. Or trying to create a better system for actually supporting residents in getting the improvements that need to be made to their cars for the safety of those around them. There’s a lot of directions we could take this.
Are people in your community on board with these changes?
I think there’s a certain open-mindedness and eagerness to establish best practices. We’re having these conversations openly and directly because people will have some serious concerns that we want to inform the process. For example, I remember early on, there were advocates who were terrified because they thought that it meant that we would never be stopping drunk driving. Of course, that’s not the intention, but when you’re looking at changing the way we’ve done something that is such an ingrained part of everyday society and what people would expect public safety to mean, yes, you’re going to have some strong reactions and you need to take those in stride.
How have you responded to concerns about drunken drivers?
I don’t see any scenario where police officers, as we know it, aren’t the ones responding to belligerent drivers. Maybe the threshold is really trying to create a distinction between the enforcement of civil versus criminal infractions.
What feedback have you received from other elected officials?
The motions in Berkeley were unanimous. Conversations are ongoing with the state legislators to try and make sure that this gets some airtime in the next legislative session. Right now, there are three big traffic enforcement-related conversations happening in Sacramento. One is a bill on automated speed enforcement. Another is a bill that basically legalizes the Idaho stop for cyclists [allowing bicyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign]. And another is [allowing] jaywalking. All of which are part of a much bigger conversation about traffic enforcement.
What is the status of these proposals?
We’re chipping at it from a lot of directions. Our adoption of this item was direction to city staff to take up each of these projects. It was not an ordinance per se, declaring that cops are not going to pull anyone over anymore. It’s all much more slow than that, which means it’s much more careful.
Have you ever had any personal experiences with law enforcement?
I would not say so. That’s something that I’m probably lucky for as a mixed white and Asian American, younger male in America. I have a very different relationship to policing than a lot of the advocates and activists who we’ve been listening to and who have been guiding this process.