Opinion: For Berkeley to reimagine public safety, we must grapple with traffic enforcement

Using unarmed enforcement officers will accomplish the twin goals of road and community safety.

In July 2020, as part of the reimagining public safety omnibus, Berkeley City Council referred to the city manager the creation of a new Berkeley Department of Transportation (BerkDOT), in part to eliminate or reduce pretextual traffic stops. Their referral suggests combining within BerkDOT transportation planning and engineering, as well as unarmed, non-police equitable traffic enforcement. As a coalition of community members with expertise spanning transportation, criminology, public policy, urban design, public health, and law, we hope to use this two-part op-ed to contextualize this effort. The first part, presented below, provides context and data behind the issue. Part 2 will outline potential solutions and our vision for BerkDOT’s role in those solutions.

Excessive traffic stops & racial profiling harm our community

The Berkeley Police Department (BPD) performs an outsized number of traffic stops, which includes stops of people in vehicles, on foot, or on bicycles. In 2019, Berkeley police conducted nearly 11,000 traffic stops. By comparison, Oakland, a city 3.5 times larger, had only 14,600 stops. Further, these stops aren’t spread equally across all Berkeleyans. Black people make up only 8% of Berkeley’s population but account for 34% of vehicle stops — 4.3 times the percent of the population. This disparity is not explained by non-residents driving through Berkeley: it is even greater for police stops of people on foot or on bike — Black pedestrians and cyclists are stopped at a rate 4.5 times the percent of the population.

Statistics also demonstrate that BPD is stopping and searching Black people in a manner that is unfounded and unjust. Already pulled over at much higher rates, Black people are 2.5 times more likely than white people to have their vehicle searched, but are less likely than white people to be arrested in a stop that involved a search (indicating racial bias in police decisions to stop and search). When placed in the context of the national experience of police violence, these unnecessary and excessive encounters by armed officers make traffic stops terrifying for the Black community.

Another source of excessive stops and racial profiling is the use of pretextual stops — traffic stops where a minor violation is used as a pretext to search a vehicle and/or person based on an officer’s suspicion of unrelated criminal activity. Pretextual stops have a high potential for implicit racial bias, as suspicions of criminal activity fall disproportionately on Black members of our community. BPD only began releasing data that would allow an examination of pretextual stops on December 1st (which we plan to examine once enough data are available), but in Washington state, we know that traffic stops of people of color increased significantly after once-banned pretextual stops were reinstated.

Finally, traffic stops are most people’s first encounter with police, and this initial encounter can begin a slippery slope into the criminal legal system, which itself is riddled with severe racial injustice issues. And even when a traffic stop does not lead to violence or arrest, exorbitant fines and fees from traffic tickets disproportionately negatively impact those with lower incomes, and what was initially intended as an action to increase safety quickly can spiral into criminalization of poverty.

Officer and community safety concerns are unfounded

We recognize that the transfer of traffic enforcement from armed police to unarmed city employees and the elimination of pretextual stops entails a monumental shift in thinking and many have raised important concerns. Fortunately, after a careful review of available data, most of these concerns are either unfounded or readily addressed.

Perhaps the most important concern pertains to risks enforcement officers encounter during traffic stops. These risks should be taken seriously. Thankfully, the data show that traffic stops are not dangerous for officers. In the largest and most comprehensive related study, the rate of felonious killings of an officer during routine traffic stops was 1 in every 6.5 million stops; the rate of serious injury was 1 in every 361,111 stops (meaning we’d expect a serious injury to a BPD officer only once every 36 years). Importantly, this study took place in Florida, where gun ownership is 60% higher than in California.

Fortunately, we already know that Berkeley can safely use unarmed employees to perform enforcement activities. This currently occurs within our Complaint-Generated Housing Inspection Program where city code enforcement staff enter people’s homes. Additionally, traffic enforcement officers would still be highly trained and have quick access to backup support, saving resources for when they are needed and reducing the danger for all parties involved.

Data also show that traffic stops do little to prevent crime. A Nashville study found increased traffic stops had no impact on serious crime and a North Carolina study found no changes in violent crime after deprioritizing pretextual stops. Closer to home, Oakland systematically reduced its traffic stops in 2017 for low-level traffic offenses with no corresponding effect on crime rates. And in Berkeley, serious crimes actually increased 16% in 2018 and 2019 despite a 25% increase in traffic stops.

A final concern reflects traffic enforcement’s original purpose: to make roads safer. Unfortunately, there is very little data that supports the effectiveness of traffic enforcement for this purpose. The data that do exist show traffic enforcement can only be effective if it uses high-visibility enforcement (HVE) strategies: targets specific dangerous behaviors, and is widespread, consistent, sustained, highly visible, and well communicated. While several cities have attempted enforcement campaigns using HVE strategies, results have been mixed, and unsafe behaviors have returned within one to three weeks. Furthermore, BPD clearly does not use HVE strategies, but instead has run poorly publicized traffic enforcement campaigns for behaviors not shown to be dangerous. And in Berkeley, the data show no correlation between numbers of traffic stops and severe and fatal collisions.

BerkDOT can improve our road safety

The local data on traffic stop inequities and the research data on traffic enforcement ineffectiveness clearly support the city’s efforts to eliminate pretextual stops and to transfer traffic enforcement duties to unarmed enforcement officers. We can accomplish our twin goals of road safety and community safety by ending pretextual stops and emphasizing a data-driven approach to traffic safety. More importantly, we have access to a significant toolkit of strategies that we know will help us to reduce severe and fatal injuries from traffic collisions. Part 2 of this op-ed will lay out a vision for how BerkDOT can function to make our streets safer and do so in an equitable manner.

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

The authors:

Perfecta Oxholm is a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley with particular interests in police-community contact and the history of American policing. She was also a member of the mayor’s Task Force for Fair and Impartial Policing for the City of Berkeley. 

Kate Gosselin recently earned her M.S. in transportation engineering at UC Berkeley. Her primary interests include traffic safety and data analysis. She serves on the city’s Transportation Commission. 

Liza Lutzker is a research data analyst at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and is a coordinating committee member of Walk Bike Berkeley. She was a member of Berkeley’s Vision Zero Community Advisory Committee and has been appointed to the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Nathan Mizell is a Third Year, Legal Studies Major at UC Berkeley. He serves as a Commissioner on the Berkeley Police Review Commission and serves as the Commission’s representative on the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.

Sofia Zander is a landscape architect and planner. She has served on the Transportation Commission since 2013.

The authors are part of the BerkDOT coalition.