However, the recent resurgence of divisive political discourse around rising crime has stymied the more transformational efforts to reimagine policing and enhance community safety and justice. Instead, lawmakers have put forth public safety proposals relying on the false premise that more police will produce more safety. The Biden administration has called for 100,000 more police nationwide. And cities across the country have established specialized police units—such as the Scorpion Unit in Memphis—that claim to be laser focused on fighting crime, but in reality, often engage in highly aggressive and racialized policing tactics that instill fear and mistrust in communities with little oversight.
Efforts to indiscriminately increase the number of police and to expand the role of police in low-level, quality of life, and traffic infractions can too easily devolve into racial profiling. These more regularized and racialized police interactions too frequently end in tragedies, all the while failing to direct police resources to the real, violent crime plaguing communities. Demands for more police, instead of determination to change how we police, will exacerbate the broken systems of overpolicing and over incarceration that have destabilized entire communities and made us no safer.
We must set our sights on systemic solutions that root out racial injustice and achieve real and lasting safety for everyone—wherever they live. This must include the difficult but urgent work of challenging policing tactics that target minor infractions under the guise of public safety, but in practice, have the much more brutal effect of the mass surveillance and profiling of Black people that too often escalate into police violence.
Racial profiling in traffic stops have deadly consequences
Police have wide discretion to conduct traffic stops for a broad array of minor traffic offenses. There is immense evidence that the police are more likely to pull over Black drivers than drivers of other races for alleged traffic violations. Police initiate approximately 50,000 traffic stops everyday nationwide, totaling nearly 20 million stops annually. Studies have shown that police stop and search Black and Latino drivers more often and with less evidence than white drivers and a study in North Carolina found that police are less likely to find illegal contraband on Black and Latino drivers as compared to white drivers. A Chicago study found that police are also more likely to use force against Black and Latino people than against white people. Tellingly, when the sun goes down and police officers cannot readily discern the race of the driver—the “veil of darkness” as it is sometimes called—traffic stops of Black drivers become less likely.
The pervasive, yet misguided, use of traffic stops as a guise for investigating other crimes—known as pretextual stops—fails to make our communities safer and too often costs Black drivers such as Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Daunte Wright, Tyre Nichols, and many more their life. Over the past five years, approximately 400 people who were neither armed nor under investigation for a serious crime were killed by police. Unsurprisingly, Black people were disproportionately represented among those who lost their life.
To reduce the racial bias and unnecessary police contact and violence that can result from low-level traffic stops, jurisdictions should limit the role that police can play in enforcing minor traffic violations. Policing experts have developed and chronicled critical solutions to ending unwarranted traffic stops, which are gaining traction across the country. In Philadelphia, a driving equality bill prevents police from initiating a stop based on certain low-level violations. While police no longer make stops based on these violations, accountability for the violation is maintained by issuing a ticket that is either mailed or placed on the vehicle’s windshield. Minneapolis; Pittsburgh; Berkeley, California; Lansing, Michigan and other jurisdictions similarly have policies that prevent traffic stops for designated low-level violations. At the state level, Virginia’s H.B. 5058 passed in 2020 and provides a blueprint for states to create prohibitions on certain low-level traffic stops. Virginia also included a prohibition against using evidence gained from pretextual stops throughout the legal process.
Brooklyn Center Minnesota passed a resolution in 2021 to create a civilian Traffic Enforcement Department that goes a step further than limiting police traffic stops by removing police from enforcing all nonmoving traffic violations.
In Ramsey County, Minnesota and Chittenden County, Vermont, prosecutors have announced that they will no longer prosecute cases that stem from nonpublic safety stop, in an effort to discourage police from making pretextual stops.
For its part, the federal government should no longer condition highway grant funding on participating in traffic enforcement to help end pretextual traffic stops and should prioritize funding for civilian traffic enforcement. In particular, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Justice should end the practice of funding local police departments for programs that encourage law enforcement to conduct pretextual traffic stops. Legislative efforts should also focus on increasing funding in civilian traffic enforcement programs in local jurisdictions.
The harms of specialized police units
The challenges of racialized traffic stops can be particularly acute in specialized police units such as the now disbanded Scorpion Unit in Memphis. Specialized police units, commonly known as “jump out units,” are often used as a means to concentrate enforcement resources within areas believed to have higher volumes of crime—almost always communities of color. These units are established under the guise of public safety, often with the expressed purpose of seizing guns or drugs, but, in reality, too often employ overly aggressive pedestrian and traffic enforcement practices that harass, alienate, and even kill Black people that happen to live in the neighborhoods being targeted.
Specialized police units like Scorpion exist all over the country and have frequently been marred by scandals. Infamously, Los Angeles’ “special investigations unit” was known for the high number of people killed during shootouts and falsely identifying people as gang members. New Orleans disbanded its “district task force” units after a Department of Justice investigation found that they lacked supervision, stopped people on questionable grounds, and endangered the public. More recently, Baltimore finally disbanded its Gun Trace Task Force when an investigation produced scathing evidence that the members of the unit engaged in robbery, racketeering, extortion, and overtime fraud. Specialized police units in New York, Washington D.C., and other cities have come under similar scrutiny.
Many times the ill-defined purpose, militarized culture, flawed success metrics, and lax accountability for these specialized units breed unjust and frequently unlawful policing. Officers in these specialized units are often given more discretion than traditional patrol officers and are rewarded for making more arrests and bringing in more contraband. These structures and benchmarks are fundamentally flawed because they encourage aggressive policing practices; incentivize officers to make pretextual stops; and measure success by making more arrests rather than by making community members more safe. Without proper oversight and accountability measures, specialized units are prone to misconduct and bias that destroy the public’s trust in police. In particular, this misconduct is largely concentrated in communities of color where the units operate.
Due to the recent uptick in violent crime at the start of the pandemic, many cities that had abandoned their specialized units have been bringing them back—often continuing the racial profiling and pretextual policing practices. Specialized units like Scorpion that are unidentified to the public; have an undefined purpose; and are unaccountable to the communities fail to provide a real public safety solution. The federal government, which distributes millions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies annually, should require agencies to phase out specialized units focused on low-level policing and enforcement and that use certain tactics, such as “jump outs,” that instill fear and undermine trust with community residents.
Accountability for racial injustice in policing
The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols has renewed calls to think about police accountability in ways that both ensure that the individual officers are brought to justice and stem the seemingly endless refrain of violent policing on Black life. Real accountability measures require systemic level interventions that change both policy and culture—and preemptively guard against aggression and violence that strips Black Americans of the safety and security they deserve.
Both institutional culture and the paramilitary structures of police departments have fueled a culture that discourages officers from speaking out or intervening when they see their colleagues engaging in misconduct or excessive force. Laws and policies that impose a duty on officers to intervene when they witness excessive force, require de-escalation, and prescribe real consequences for violations of these policies are essential to breaking down the “us versus them” culture.
There is an increased need for both data collection and data transparency around police activity. Proactive data collection and reporting obligations allow police departments, lawmakers, and the public to better understand persistent problems and push for solutions. In particular, the collection and reporting of race and ethnicity data are extremely limited; the data quality is low; and race-based outcomes are rarely assessed in evaluations of policing practices. Data collections and transparency requirements should be established related to the race-based outcomes of specific policing practices.
Congress should pass comprehensive legislation such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which eliminates qualified immunity as a liability defense when law enforcement violates an individual’s constitutional rights; requires state and local agencies to report use of force data; and establishes a national police misconduct registry. This registry would serve as a national database of officers who have been discharged from one department for misconduct so that this information is available to other departments. However, this legislation alone will not satisfy the gaping need for reform.
The Biden administration must also build on the “Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety” released last year that called for more comprehensive data collection related to use-of-force incidents; revised use of force standards; and expanded available resources to support the implementation of alternative crisis response models. Now is a critical time for the administration to not only recommit to efforts they’ve outlined in their executive order but also to use the full extent of their grantmaking authority to incentivize adoption of those standards by state and local law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the administration should go further by calling for stricter use of force standards; increasing its use of pattern-of-practice investigations; discouraging the use of specialized police units; and committing to eliminating funding support for the harmful practice of pretextual traffic stops.
In order to achieve real public safety, we must go beyond accountable policing to ensure that the entire system of government is held accountable for the role it plays in preventing crime over the long term. For a truly comprehensive approach, we need new infrastructure at all levels of government to house, manage, and coordinate the various programs and interventions that prevent crime and deliver safety. Some localities are already moving in this direction by coordinating violence prevention; mobile crisis response; community responder models; and alternative traffic enforcement under independent government entities. It is essential that these entities are sustainably funded, overseen independently from law enforcement, and elevated as a critical component of public safety service delivery. Minneapolis has established an Office of Community Safety to coordinate among the city’s various public safety departments. New York City carries out its comprehensive prevention programming through its Department of Youth and Community Development, which invests in programs that address root causes of crime such as poverty and lack of opportunity. Albuquerque has established a community safety department that operates independently from local police and fire departments and responds to calls for behavioral health services and other nonviolent community concerns.
The Biden administration should model what states and localities should do to build the right infrastructure for a community-driven and prevention-first approach to public safety. This would involve establishing a new Community Safety Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to oversee federal grant programs and facilitate interagency coordination on prevention-focused public safety programs.
There is no doubt that every single person has the right to feel safe from crime and that public safety is paramount. But we must acknowledge that the regression to tough-on-crime policies will not achieve that result. In fact, they reinforce the very same harmful policing practices that have resulted in Tyre Nichols’ killing.
We can no longer be satisfied with public responses that approach the loss of Black life as an isolated incident. Nor can we tolerate a lack of commitment from policymakers to address persistent racial profiling and policing practices that criminalize and harm Black people for walking to the convenience store, driving a car, or going about everyday life in this country. Racial prejudice has fueled a system of overpolicing and mass incarceration of Black people, but has achieved neither safety nor justice.
The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Learn more at vera.org.
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