Chuck Marohn, StrongTowns.org
Years ago, I ran my own planning company. And one day, I was sitting at my desk and one of my colleagues came storming into the office. And he is a pretty mild mannered guy, not one to gratuitously go off half cocked. He comes in, and I could just see the storm cloud over him. He’s slamming stuff down and carrying on. And I came to find out that he had gotten a ticket. He had gotten pulled over and issued a citation for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Now it was that the incident happened in the city north of Brainerd where I live. He had gone up there. We were working for the city actually.
They had had some turnover, and we were filling in part time until they brought in someone full time. He had gone up there to cover a couple of things and pulled into the main intersection in town. Now, there are other stop signs in town. But this is the main intersection. And just looking at it — I’ve been here many, many, many times. It’s one of those where you pull up and you can see half a mile in each direction. So he pulls up to this and, supposedly, he rolled through. He contends quite forcefully that he came to a complete stop. Nevertheless the police officer pulled him over. And I don’t know what his reaction was, he’s not a guy to pick a fight, but I’m sure he was a little shocked and actually got a ticket. And he was he was pretty ticked off.
It didn’t surprise me — and it didn’t surprise me not because Tim has this history of breaking the law. He doesn’t. Dare I say, he is a pretty standard, mild, easygoing guy. The problem was that I had worked in the city, and I knew how their police department operated. For a while, I had served as the city administrator. They were in the process of bringing on an administrator. I filled in part time. This is something that I did in many different jurisdictions across the state when they needed someone temporarily, they would call us and we would fill in.
So I had met, in that capacity, with their police chief. Let me just say, he’s a really nice guy. He’s not there anymore, he’s retired. He’s a really nice guy. His kids had my mom in school. My mom was a teacher for many years. His kids had my mom, they liked my mom, my mom liked them. I like them. They’re nice people. They’re really nice people.
But he explained to me how they did business, and he was not shy about this. He was very proud of it. He was very clear on the way they operated. He said that he had instructed his officers to be aggressive in pulling people over. They call this an investigatory stop. So someone pulls up to a stop sign. They don’t come to a complete stop. You pull them over and you use that incident as a way to — and I’m going to use my words, not his — as a way to fish for other things, right?
So you run their license, do they have a warrant? Do they have expired tabs? Do you smell alcohol, do you smell pot — is there something else?
And he told me about this approach and how they did this and said that, essentially, it was a really good way for them to interact into the mainstream happenings of the community and find nefarious activity. He told me they’ve found numerous people with warrants. They have discovered numerous people with drugs. This was one of the ways that they were able to do policing. And, according to him, they had a pretty high success rate of identifying what they would call really bad characters.
But my friend Tim got caught in the crossfire. Didn’t appreciate it. I have to say I got pulled over [there] too, a number of times, before this, before I was aware of this, [and] actually since I’ve been aware of this. If there are multiple routes I can take and one goes through [there] and one doesn’t, I just I don’t go through. I stay away from it. I stay far, far away, but I had, in years past, gotten pulled over a couple of times.
One time, I had a taillight out, one of my tail lights were out. I had a Toyota Echo. A little car that I had for a long time. We had mice in the garage that had gotten in the car and chewed some of the wires, and I got it all fixed, but we could not figure out why this taillight would go out.
And the frustrating thing is that it would be on. It would work just fine and would flicker out and literally all you had to do to get to work was go back and pound on it and it would it would click back in. And I brought this to the dealership. They went through it. We did all kinds of stuff and we just could not figure this weird thing out. So I got pulled over for that once, and the police officer came to the door. “Do you know why I’m pulling you over?” “No, I have no idea.” He goes “Well, you got a taillight out.”
I’m like “Oh.” And I explain to him what was going on. I said “Could I get out and fix it because I’ll show you I can I can fix it.” And he’s like, “Sure, pop your trunk, and we’ll go back there and take a look at it.” So I popped the trunk and we went back and he shined his light around the trunk and, I guess, made sure I didn’t have any dead bodies. And I tapped on the light and it turned back on and he said “All right, well, why don’t you get that fixed?” and I’m like “I’ve been down that road, dude.” But anyway, he let me go and I went on my way.
I’ve been pulled over many, many times — in fact, I’ve often thought if I became a public figure, the kind that was subjected to scrutiny the way that a political candidate would be, for example, that one of the things that would come up was this horrific driving record that I have.
I don’t know how many speeding tickets I have. I would say if you gave me an over/under, more or less than 15.
I would say less than 15. So, somewhere in that range 10 to 15 speeding tickets. I’m 43 so I’ve been driving decades now, but most of my tickets came in a very specific period of time. It was a period of time when I was running my own planning company. We were working all over the state. I would have night meetings fourteen or fifteen times a month, and they were always in some remote rural location ,and I would be driving back home in that magical period of time between 11:00 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Now why is that a magical period of time? It’s a magical period of time because the police are very aware that there’s a lot of people who are out driving intoxicated during those hours. People go to the bar, they’re heading home. They’ve had too much to drink and, particularly in a lot of these small towns, it becomes a very — and I want to say I want to say this in the right way – it’s a very easy and convenient way to do one of these investigatory stops and find out if someone’s been drinking or not, right out on the edge of all these towns.
Every single one of them, there’s this transition zone where the highway design is the same. Everything looks the same. You’re going legally 55 miles an hour and then all of a sudden it changes to 40 or changes to 30 and there’s this abrupt transition, even though the visual cues to the driver are no different. Everything’s the same, it’s just that there’s a sign there. People speed through these areas all the time. I mean it is — I to this day — I know where a lot of them are. I was driving home from Grand Rapids the other day, and I drove through this little town of Deer River and it seemed like a mile out of town it switches to 40 miles an hour for no discernible reason. And then when you get to town and it becomes more discernible, “OK, I should be driving a lot slower now.” You naturally start to slow down.
But you have this stretch, out on the edge, where, unless you catch the sign, unless you know — there’s no other cue is what I’m trying to say. There’s no other visual cue that tells you drive slower except for this road sign. So I would get pulled over all the time. I mean all the time. It just seemed like it was always 50, 40, 55, and 45, those kind of things. I got pulled over for going 45 in a 40. I mean I’ve gotten pulled over. It was just a pretext that you were breaking the law.
Clearly, I’m not arguing that I was not breaking the law. I was breaking the law. I was going fast. But these are places that during the day nobody bothers with, right? There’s no police officer that sits in most of these places. They go out during these high crime periods of time, and they try to pull people over because a percentage of them will be drinking. And, generally, when we get pulled over, police officers would come up and say “Do you know why I pulled you over?” And I say either “Yes, I was exceeding the speed limit” or “Gosh, really, I have no idea.” The latter usually ticked them off. The former, they appreciate that you would acknowledge it you were going too fast, but then we’d have a little bit of dialogue. And I think they would figure out that I was not drinking and generally I would be allowed to go on my way.
Every now and then I might get a ticket. But, generally, I was allowed to go on my way. I had this thing for a while where, if I was wearing a tie, I did not get a ticket and I would say I had a stretch of five or six times where I was wearing a tie and I did not get a ticket. And so I actually got a little clip-on tie. And I wore a tie to most of my meetings. So I was pretty much wearing a tie, but there were some times where I didn’t, and if I had a collared shirt, I would have this little clip-on tie. And as soon as I saw the lights, I would reach over, I had my tie hid there.
I put my clothes on and when they came up, I would I would have my tie on, and I never got a ticket. I think I got a ticket once. But it was years later during that period of time, when I was getting pulled over a lot, I did not get any tickets with a tie on. I just didn’t.
So this is the kind of interaction with police that I have experience, that I’ve seen from the perspective of an affluent professional person who has worked in city government with police officers and seen how all of this operates. I feel I get the system, and I actually don’t think that any of these people are evil. I would get frustrated with the officers because “I’m why are you doing it like this,” it just would make me so frustrated. But I never got to the point where I’m “OK these police officers are just evil. They’re terrible, they’re doing wrong.”
They were doing what we expected them to do, right? They were doing what we asked them to do, and when they would show up at the council meetings and say, “yes, we pulled over, we had this many tickets that we issued. We set up a little speed trap on the edge of town or we would we would park in a spot on the edge of town. And, boy, we get one or two drunk drivers a week or a night” or whatever the rate was. The council would applaud, and the public would applaud, and in general we applaud the perceived interdiction of crime, right? We’re good with this. I get it. I totally, totally get it.
I want to talk a little bit about Philando Castile, the gentleman who was killed by the St. Anthony police here in Minnesota a few weeks back during a routine traffic stop.
It came out in the newspaper in the following weeks that he had been pulled over by police forty-nine times. Forty-nine times. And I remember looking at that number going “Wow, that is a huge number of times.” You get pulled over now and then, I thought, “How many times have I been pulled over?” Forty-nine? Probably not forty-nine now.
Castile was eleven years younger than me. I am over 40 now, but maybe at [age] 30 — even [to be] pulled over thirty times – forty-nine is an amazingly high number for anyone. I think 30 is probably a high number. If I looked at someone like my wife, who doesn’t drive in these high pullover-rate times, and doesn’t drive in high pullover-rate neighborhoods. She’s probably been pulled over five times, six times, so my thirty times would seem huge. Forty-nine seems just outrageously high, right? And the local newspaper laid out what was going on, and I’m going to read a quote from them because it sounded eerily familiar to me, both from my experience as a driver and also as the administrator in the city where I had the opportunity to work with the police chief here. The Star Tribune, the state newspaper here in Minnesota said “Could still have been stopped before when officers spotted him not wearing a seatbelt or when an officer ran his plate number and found his license had been revoked for not paying an earlier fine. Numerous stops came after he didn’t use a turn signal. A few came after he was speeding. He was stopped for rolling through a right turn on a red light, having windows tints that were too dark, and at least twice for not having a rear license plate light. He was rarely ticketed for the reason he was stopped.”
Now we’re not going to talk at all about police shootings here, and we’re not going to talk at all about that whole controversy. I don’t want to get into it. I have some opinions. I don’t know if I have any Strong Towns type of opinions on it. It all makes me sad. I don’t want to get into it. And some of the people in the article that I wrote this week on the blog wanted to go there and I don’t. There are plenty of places talking about that. And I think they should go talk about that there. I don’t want to talk about that. If he had broken the law, if he had a taillight out. I guess I’m not suggesting that the cops were wrong in pulling him over, and I’m also not suggesting that the police were wrong in pulling me over any of the times that I got pulled over. I know they were legitimate traffic stops, right? What I do want to talk about today is a couple of things regarding this notion of the investigatory stop and how to view that in light of the environment that we have built.
I want to put forth the notion that everybody breaks traffic laws. And I know there are people listening right now [saying] “I never break traffic laws.” Yes, you do. Yes, you do.
You have you break traffic laws at times. You don’t know your headlight’s out, you don’t know your taillight’s out. You’re telling me that you always do a preventative maintenance check before you turn on your vehicle and make sure that all the lights are working? No, you don’t. You’ve broken traffic laws. You come to an absolute complete stop with an interval of zero forward motion at every single stop sign? No, you don’t, you do not do that, you’ve never gone through an accelerated through when a light turns yellow to try to make that turn? You’ve never driven a mile over the speed limit? Yes, you have, every single person listening to this breaks traffic laws all the time. All the time, right?
The people who have commented on the post I do this week said “You know, well, they could just follow the law.” And the other one I like is “Or they could just do what the officer says.”
And both of those I find just bizarre because, for the most part, there are a lot of people in this country who believe that if you just follow the law you could live a life like me and never get pulled over by the police.
And I’m telling you the reason you’re not getting pulled over by the police is not because you’re not breaking a law, it’s because you’re not in that target zone. Right? You’re not out driving in the transition zone on the edge of town in a rural community between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. You’re not there. If you were there you would get pulled over, but you’re not there, right? You’re not there so you’re not getting pulled over. If you leave your cul-de-sac in your very nice, modern, brand-new car with no rust, and the exhaust muffler not making noise, and you drive down the street to the school and then to your office park and back, you’re not in an area where police are targeting. You’re not in a crime area where we have an expectation that police will be out doing these type of investigatory stops in order to essentially stamp down crime or prevent crime from happening or be tough on the criminal element.
So I want to just get to a place where everyone acknowledges that we all break traffic laws all the time, all the time, every day, all the time. Routinely, people break traffic laws and are never held to account for this. And I’m not arguing that that’s bad. I’m saying that’s a good thing. Most traffic laws’ and this is really where I want to get to’ most traffic laws are — how do I put this? In a way, I’m going to say frivolous, because if you’re driving with a taillight out, you should get that fixed, right, but they’re not life threatening.
Right now, I’ve got two daughters. There’s a certain scream that they do sometimes, like they’re mad at each other, or they’re playing, or the one stubs their toe and they scream like someone’s going to die kind of scream. And I come running. My wife comes running. “Oh my gosh, what happened?”
And it’s “OK, no, that did not warrant that level of scream. That level of scream is for “Dad, I’m about to die, someone’s about to get hurt, come quickly.” So we’ve got to teach our kids, OK, you can go ahead and express your displeasure here but not in that way that’s out of proportion.
When we look at traffic stops, they’re not the scream come running because someone’s about to die kind of thing. They’re the nuisance kind of things. Your taillight’s out. You need to get that fixed.
And this is the case because, when you get pulled over for having a taillight out, what does the officer do, right? The first thing they generally tell you “Your taillight’s out” and I’ve gotten that one before. They’ll say you need to get that fixed, right? Sometimes they’ll write you up a warning, sometimes they’ll write you up a ticket, but they generally just say “Hey, I want you know, you got a taillight out. Go get that fixed.” But then they let you drive off, right? They don’t impound your car there. They don’t make you sit on the side of the road until AAA comes and fixes your taillight. They let you actually proceed on your way because driving with a taillight out is not creating chaos and mayhem on the roads. The correlation between that and people dying on our streets is incredibly, incredibly low. Let’s get you home let’s make you aware. Go take care of it be a responsible citizen. OK.
When we get to things like speeding — and this is really the one that that I’ve been the most passionate about for a long, long time — when we get to things like speeding we have a completely different kind of mindset, right? I am sitting here in the office in Brainerd today and outside my window, there’s a place where the police sit all the time. They’ll come here, and I say all the time, I mean once every couple of weeks, there’ll be a police officer that sits outside here. It’s the perfect speed trap place, right? Really, really wide lanes. I mean, 18-foot lanes, these are huge industrial, commercial-sized lanes, a sweeping curve so they can sit on the curve and people coming around the curve can’t see them, and they can sit here and just pull people over all day because everybody who drives through here is speeding. Everybody who drives through here is, when I see the police out there.
And I will leave, and come back, and I will be speeding, right? And I’m not trying to break the law. It”s just — the speed limit is 30 and the road is designed for 60 mile an hour speed, and it’s really, really hard — you have to consciously focus, think — really take yourself out of the second part of your brain and put yourself in the very first, the active part of your brain, in order to make yourself drive slow, because all the signals in the environment are “Drive fast, drive fast, drive fast.”
So police just pull people over all the time they just they just sit here and they pull people all the time. Here in Minnesota, we have some deal where some of the revenue goes locally but a lot of it goes to the state. And I’m not really sure where it goes. I know that they don’t get . . . it’s not like a Ferguson situation where we’re funding city hall with police fines, that doesn’t happen.
There’s the civil asset forfeiture laws, which are really screwed up, which does in ways. I think the optics are bad on. I’m not suggesting the police officers are abusing this here locally, but if they wanted to, there’s no accountability for that. It’s one of these laws that’s written with the assumption that all police are honest all the time. And for me I think anytime you write a law like that you’re just you begging for nefarious activity. As an aside, we used to have a thing we said in the Army, “There are no thieves in the Army.” There’s no thieves in the Army. And that was like, the thing. You said “Hoow do there’s not thieves in the Army?” – Because we all put locks on our wall lockers, right? Now no one was going to steal your stuff because it’s locked. It wasn’t that nobody was a thief, it’s that we always lock up right? So when you say “There are no thieves in the Army” it’s not that you just leave your wall locker unlocked then? There’s no thieves because we don’t allow people the opportunity to steal, right?
When we look at the police department say “There’s no bad cops, it’s . . .” right? That’s what our law. Says you can arbitrarily seize assets that are, ancillary or not, you suspect to be involved in a crime. You may have the vast overwhelming percentage of police officers that do not abuse that power but the optics of it is horrible and the inducement of nefarious activity, whether it’s happening or not is just not right. I mean to me, if I was a police officer, I want to get rid of that law. I want to change that because, if there is no way you can defend it, there’s no way you can defend it.
So I’ve got a little bit off track here but I want to get back to speeding because the idea that they can just sit out here and pull anyone over at any time creates the situation where police speeding stops become less about enforcing behavior that is socially acceptable than it is about what is being called these investigatory stops. And an opportunity to proactively create an interaction with the public as a way to – and, again, these are my words, fish for other things.
And I say that because — think about the street right outside the office here. If the concern was that driving at high speeds is unsafe, OK, I have that concern. I think that that is a concern. If the concern is that driving at high speeds is unsafe, well then, we have to step back and look, and we can see that the police officers got here all the time and just pull everybody over. I mean most people are speeding. A high, high percentage of people are going over the speed limit. I just made a broad brush statement, I’m sure there are some that are cringing at that.
Look, I’ve done speed studies. I’ve sat out, not here, outside the office, but other parts of the state. I did an internship for the DA back when I was an undergrad and what I did for a month was do speed studies. And there are places where every single person is speeding. You will have a place where eighty percent of the people are going over the speed limit. And that’s the situation out here. Obvious. Most people are speeding. So in that case, you have to ask yourself, if most people are speeding and going fast is not safe then, is this really an enforcement issue, right?
Is this really an issue where enforcement of the speed limit is going to change behavior and make things safe? Now maybe if the police officer just sat out there 24/7, right, and had a had a visual presence out on the street, it would have an impact, but that’s not what they do, right?
They hide on the corner to catch people speeding. If they really want to slow down what would they do? They would sit out there and say. “OK, I going to be here. If you speed I’m going to get you. But I’m going to be out here, visually present, so that you see and slow down.” And that’s not what they’re doing. They’re trying to catch people speeding? Right? They’re trying to have this interdiction. In essence, if we really cared about the people speeding, if speeding was the problem we were trying to solve, what would we do? If speeding was the problem we were actually trying to address and solve, what would we do in a situation like this?
Well, we would ask a different set of questions. We’s say “Why are people speeding? Why is the average person — and we can assume that the average person is a non deviant, right? If eighty percent of our population are deviants, where do you live, right? We’re not. Most people obey the law or try to obey the law. So if most people are not, in an instance, obeying a traffic law, then what’s going on here?
And I would suggest strongly that that law is not right. The law is incorrect. And one of two things needs to happen. Either, one, the speed limit needs to be changed, because it doesn’t reflect accurately the way the street is designed and the way it’s inducing people to drive. And that’s actually traffic engineering 101, right? I mean, people complain about speeding, and they’ll go and do the traffic study and then find “Yeah, there’s a lot of people speeding,” and they raise the speed limit. I get this complaint all the time. It’s called the eighty-fifth percentile. And that is actually the correct way to do it. If you won’t, do option number two. Option Two is to go and change the design if you’re getting the results that you don’t want, if you’re getting results that are not safe.
So we’re in an urban area here. The speed limit is 30. People are routinely driving 40, 45 miles an hour. That is considered not safe through this section. What is the proper response? Enforcement is not going to do it, because we do that and people still speed, right? And the majority of people are speeding. So it’s not like it’s a deviant behavior.
What is the proper response? The proper response is to go out and redesign that street and to get the optimum outcome. Things like narrowing down the lanes, creating some edge friction, bringing the trees, and bringing the curbs in and doing stuff to slow the section down, so that the average person, the typical driver, when they drive through, gets the visual cues that it’s not safe to drive fast, you must drive slower.
We don’t do that. We never do that. We never do that. And let me give you the very cynical reason why. And then maybe I’ll talk about less cynical reasons, but I think if you wanted to be very cynical — and I’m not sure I believe this but I certainly am sympathetic to it. I certainly think there’s an element of this; if you want to be very, very cynical it is quite convenient. From a law enforcement standpoint, to have a set of laws that nobody follows — that allow you to, at any point in time that you actually need to, to interact with anybody, right? If we were going to design . . . let’s say this is not the United States of America, this is like Stasi Germany right. East Germany in the Cold War. And we wanted — We’re going to have our movie, that’s going to set out the way that the Stasi police go around and harass people. What we would do is we would expect them to set up these arbitrary rules that go against human nature, that nobody really follows.
That would allow you to just at any point in time go out and say “Hey, you’re breaking a rule, I’m going to bring you in, we’re going to have this investigatory stop, and I’m going to check out your papers and everything about you and make sure that you’re not up to no good because I’m looking after the state, right?
I know that just made a lot of you uncomfortable, because you think I just called our police the Stasi. I did not. But I am drawing some parallels because the mindset is somewhat the same, right? We have these laws that nobody follows, that are literally designed so that human nature conflicts with what the law says for the vast majority of people all the time. Yet we allow this to continue because it’s convenient from an enforcement standpoint.
I want to play a real quick little clip here that I want you to listen to. This is from a video called “Speed Kills Your Pocketbook” and it’s I think it’s hilarious. It is. It is a breakdown of the engineering profession, the police profession, and government, and how this kind of unholy intersection of bad design with random enforcement is really in the interest of governments but not people. I want to I want to play this one clip for you because it’s a clip of an incident where a police officer’s out and is just doing, with a news crew, is taking speed limits and finding that nobody [doesn’t] exceed the speed limit. Everybody was speeding. We haven’t seen a single person that has been doing the speed limit.
And that’s what I’m saying. I’ve been in those situations, with a radar gun, where every single person is speeding. It’s not an enforcement problem, it’s a design problem. And when we don’t treat it as a design problem, it raises all these red flags. Why do we really want, is it so important that we be able to pull anybody over at any time for any reason, or have a reason to pull anybody over at any time? Is that important from a crime-fighting standpoint?
And for those of you that say yes, OK, I’m not going to argue with you. I’m not going to argue with you. I just don’t want you to get away with the idea that we’re pulling people over because they’re breaking the law. We’re not. Yes, they’re breaking the law. But everybody is breaking the law.
We’re still choosing where and when to pull people over, right? We’re still choosing that. So that was the cynical view. I want to give you the non-cynical too, because I think it’s worth thinking through, and I’m not sure I wholly buy this one either. I maybe buy a blend of the two. But I think it’s important to realize that this is not some grand conspiracy that was created to make the U.S. a police state. This is just something that we’ve fallen into. The whole idea of forgiving design, the whole idea that you make roads safer by widening our driving lanes, by adding recovery area, by adding clear zones, by removing obstacles from the edge. This is this is proven design for roads, right? Between places where we’re trying to get long distances at speed. We’ve become really good at designing environments that are really safe by applying these forgiving design principles, but when we get into urban areas, when we get into places where there’s complexity, where cars turn, where cars stop, or cars park, where people walk across the street, where people walk adjacent to the street, where bikers are, or where people are on roller skates and roller blades and skateboards.
When we have complex environments, forgiving design does the opposite, right? It signals to drivers that things are safe when they’re not. It signals to drivers that higher speeds are safe — are actually safe to them, right? And there’s an asymmetry there because the drive, for the driver, is safe. If the driver hits a pedestrian the driver will suffer emotional damage but [escape] physical damage.
This is Ben Hamilton Baille. He said, if we were going to have symmetry of risk, as opposed to an asymmetry of risk. If we were going to have the risk be equal between the person outside the car and inside the car, when the person inside the car got into an urban environment, the seatbelt would come off, and automatically a little knife would come out from the steering wheel and be pointed at the person’s heart. And then, if there were a collision where they ran into something, they would suffer the same level of damage in pain as the person outside. And his statement was [that] what this would force them to do is [that] people would drive like it mattered. They [would] drive really slow and really cautiously, because they would be experiencing as much risk as the people outside the vehicle.
That was hyperbole, right? That was to make a point about how asymmetrical this risk is. But, what we have done is we have taken an ethic of highway engineering and design and what is safe in a highway engineering and design type of ethic, and we have brought that into our neighborhoods and we’ve said it’s safe here. It’s now safe there. [But] the reality is these are very different environments and fast speeds — high speed, when you induce high speeds, you kill people. You kill people and you create mayhem.
So from a design side, and there’s a ton of reasons why this has happened. I would blame the way that we have funded this stuff and the way we have centralized it. We centralized federal highway policy so that we could build the interstates and then we funded all these local road building programs through those same kind of channels. And what you get is you get a conveyance of standards and information and know-how that now becomes the way we build every neighborhood. And it’s just it’s just wrong. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not like someone set out to do this but you’ve got the wrong values and the wrong ethics being applied in the wrong place.
And now that we’re here, what has morphed [from that] is that this is [a] very convenient law enforcement tool, where we can go out and, at any time of the day, find people that are breaking the law because they’re breaking law all the time, everywhere. And we can pull them over and we can do an investigatory stop and essentially find that nefarious activity.
I suspect, and I’m willing to admit that I do not know, I have not been with police officers when they’ve patrolled high-crime neighborhoods. I don’t have a lot of experience with high-crime neighborhoods. I don’t. I’m not going to pretend that I do. I live in a community that is predominantly middle-class white people. I do not have experiences beyond that that are worthy of . . . . I cannot stand here and say I speak as an authority on this, right?
I suspect — and here’s my theory: I suspect that when we go out and target as a policy, high-crime neighborhoods, be they racially diverse or not, they generally are, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out, the Ebola-like problem of being poor. Right? They generally are poor neighborhoods.
When we go out to poor neighborhoods, we label them high-crime and we use these kind of random traffic stops as a pretext to these, tougher policing, and are getting tough on crime or the investigatory stop as a way to initiate contact and randomly scoop up bad people doing things you’re not supposed to do. I can see how that creates resentment, right?
I can also see how that is a crime fighting technique, right? I can see how people who are in law enforcement say “this is a very effective technique for us, that we catch a lot of bad guys doing this. And if we didn’t have this technique we wouldn’t catch as many bad guys.” I might not believe that but I can see why they would say that. I can see how that would evolve and why they would make that argument. I can see why the tough on crime people would say “we need this. We need to be able to do this.”
The point I’m trying to make is I can see why people become resentful. Right? If I’m pulled over forty-nine times as Philando Castile was, if I’m pulled over forty-nine times just for the crime of driving a junker car in a poor neighborhood and, really, living my life in all other ways like a person in a affluent neighborhood driving a Lexus, but when their taillight is out they don’t get pulled over. But I do, because we have sting nets in my neighborhood, trying to be tough on crime. I’m going to feel oppressed. I’m going to be ticked off and I’m not going to like that. Right. Someone sent me this week a study showing a correlation between people who have been pulled over for traffic violations and people who commit more — it wasn’t violent crime, but it was more serious crimes.
Right, and their point was, “Well, look, when we pull people over for traffic stops where these people are out committing other crimes.” And yeah, that’s because you’re focusing on the high-crime neighborhoods, right? If traffic laws were equally enforced across all neighborhoods – in other words, everybody pulling out of their cul-de-sac or their alley who had a taillight out were equally likely to get pulled over, and equally likely to be ticketed, that correlation would go away — would go away, would completely go away. It’s only because we do these things in poor and high crime neighborhoods as a law enforcement tool that those correlations exist in the first place.
So my senses, my theory, is that the people who are complaining about being oppressed, the people are complaining that we are being targeted, we’re being profiled, this is not fair. They’re right. They’re right. This is not fair, because the random rule as it’s applied to you is not being randomly applied to other people who are breaking the law everyday, all the time, because they’re not poor, they’re not a poor neighborhood, they’re not in a high-crime neighborhood. On the other hand, the people who are saying “Well, just follow the law.” Right. Like, “just follow the law” are blind to the fact that they’re not following the law. They’re just not having it forced on them.
And I would say, the police officers who are saying this is a great way, this is a really good tool for us to interdict in criminal neighborhoods and find bad people, I suspect they’re right too, right? I suspect that they are also correct. I suspect that they are also identifying a technique and an approach that actually works for them.
Here’s where I want to go with this.
Because I’m not pretending that we’re going to solve the problems that we see in the Philando Castile case, which I said we’re not going to talk about police shootings. I can’t say that I understand what happened, it doesn’t make sense to me.
But I have to ask myself are we really building a strong America?
Are we really building a great nation?
Are we really a just people?
Are we really focused on the safety of our places with the current approach that we have, by ignoring speed in our design, essentially saying “Here’s our design” and then enforcement is what’s going to deal with the speed.
We’re really not dealing with speed, right? We are continuing to perpetuate a cycle of people speeding. And as a society we’re seemingly OK with that. We then are inducing a pattern a system an approach to enforcement that is rather random.
And as we’ve seen in recent years, and maybe has existed for a long time but is now being put in our faces, probably rightly, so is now something that thanks to smartphones and what have you, as not being swept under the rug, right? A “he-said, she-said” where one side is law enforcement, the other side is someone with a long record of getting pulled over by the police, right?
We’re seeing that this approach is having some negative effects.
Now I want to I want to quote someone from a law enforcement advocacy organization. This actually comes from an article in a law enforcement journal that I pulled out and I’m going to quote because it quotes this guy who is with the national tactical officers association. He says quote “traffic stops and domestic violence are the highest risk calls. You have no idea what you’re walking into,” said John Nagy executive director of the national tactical officers association. “If I had to rank them I’d rank traffic stops first. And domestic violence second, so traffic stops are the most dangerous things that police officers do.”
And this article goes on to point out that from 2000 to 2009, 118 officers were killed conducting traffic stops, 82 in domestic violence complaints, and 74 during disturbance calls. And there are other websites that looked and saw that these traffic stops are by far the most dangerous thing police have to do. More police officers are killed and injured during these traffic stops than anything else than anything else.
So I’m sitting here in my office in Brainerd, Minnesota, and I’m saying I want police to be safe. I do not want to put law enforcement in harm’s way. When we need law enforcement to show up and actually go into harm’s way, I want to do that purposefully. I don’t want to do that willy-nilly. I don’t want to do that on a whim. If we’re going to ask — and I’m former military — if we’re going to ask our military to go fight a war, we’re going to fight a war, we’re not going to go light, right? We’re going to do everything we can to win if we’re going to ask our police officers to go out and risk their lives. It better be for something that counts. It better be for something that matters.
I’ve also seen neighborhoods that are disadvantaged, and I’m hearing people in neighborhoods that are disadvantaged saying “Look, we’re being picked on, we’re being oppressed, treated unfairly, we’re living in an oppressive type of society.” And I am sympathetic to that. I get it. I see it. I think that that is a reality that this system has brought about. And I’m actually sitting here as a parent, as a husband, as someone who lives in a neighborhood in a community, and I’m watching people speed all over the place, and I’m watching our street designs be despotic to people who are outside of an automobile. And I look at my profession, the engineering profession, as largely not caring about this at all, or saying “Well, law enforcement will take care of that” and I’m putting these three things together. I want it to matter for police. I don’t want people to be oppressed. And I want our streets to be safe. And I’m saying I think we can fix this.
I think we can fix this.
So how would I go about fixing this?
The first thing I would do is I’d say, all right, speed. From now on, if I’m a mayor of a city, I’m saying I want to know where people are speeding. You show me, you map this out, give me a GIS map and show me where chronic speeding is. And then I want to deploy my engineers, my planners, my urban designers, and all the people who can add something to this conversation to those speeding spots. And I want them redesigned so people drive slower, and we’re going to keep iterating back and forth, and iterating, and iterate, and iterating, until the 85 percent, the vast majority of people, are driving at a speed that is safe. And if we’re not doing that we are not a moral people then. This is the approach I take. From now on, everywhere. This is the approach I got and I take everywhere in response to speeding.
Now, my police force. They can pull over speeders, right? Because the only thing they’re going to get now are the deviants, right? Are there people who are deviating from the law and you want to make a correlation there, go right ahead. But if the majority of people are speeding, they’re not deviants. I want to get it to where the design brings people to where they should be driving at safe speeds. And then we have law enforcement focus on deviants, which is what we want them to do, right? We want them to do things that matter.
Here’s the second thing I do, and this is a little bit more of a leap, because the first thing is right in my wheel house and I get and understand the second thing is a little bit outside of it. But I feel it’s technologically possible and also very easy to do. Let’s picture Philando Castile driving down the street and the police officer sees his car with a taillight out. OK, the taillight’s out. Here’s what I would like to see happen: this police car is, or should be, equipped with a camera, maybe multiple cameras. I know the officers have computers in their car. I would love to see a button, press that button, would then capture the last 30 seconds of whatever is on that camera along with whenever it continues until the button is pressed again. It will give audio for the officer the officer to describe what’s going on say “Hey, here’s a car. It is a whatever make and model, here’s the license plate,” it is automatically date and time stamped. They say “I have observed the taillight is out, you can clearly see this or this video.” Bam, the button is pressed, that gets downloaded, gets sent. It’s automated.
They send them that. Philando still gets home. A couple of days later, gets a ticket in the mail. The ticket is perhaps a warning on the first time saying “Hey, look, dude, we want to let you know — for your health and for everybody else’s safety — that you’ve got a rear light missing. You weren’t wearing your seat belt, you were doing some other non-life threatening thing, but something that is a problem, is a nuisance, you were doing this. You were observed by a public safety official in doing this. If you would like to view the documentation, here’s the web site, you can go enter your citation, you can view the documentation if you want to dispute this. Here’s where you can go to do it. But we saw you doing this and you need to have this fixed within seven days. Call us and acknowledge that you have fixed it, and if you get caught again you can get a ticket.
I’m not going to get into how the fines should be stepped up and what have you. But if the idea here is to actually enforce the law or actually have a safe environment, to me, that is a much safer way to run a city, right?
We’re not asking the cops to go out and do these really high-risk dangerous interdictions randomly, right? We’re not asking people to be subjected to, in certain neighborhoods, at certain times, in certain places, police-state type oppression, right? We’re not, and we’re actually then dealing with the real true public safety issues at play.
I’m not gonna pretend that that is the golden solution. I’m not going to pretend that I thought this all through and this is exactly how this will solve every problem we have. I’m not that naive. But I think that this kind of thinking — the kind of thinking that acknowledges that traffic laws are not the hill we, as a society, want to die on, right? It’s not the place where we want to make our stand between chaos and mayhem and order and decency, right? That’s not the place.
If we can agree on that. If we can agree that we want to actually, generally make things safer, we want to make this country safer. We want to make our streets safer. We want to make our places safer. We want to make things better for people. And if we also can say that we want to use law enforcement respectfully, respectful for the officers. I don’t want to put them randomly in danger for no good reason. I don’t want to ask them to do things that are going to put their lives at risk for very little benefit.
Let me deal with the very last thing here. And that is without investigatory stops are we just going to have rampant crime. I had someone send me that Timothy McVeigh was caught with a random stop. As if Timothy McVeigh would never have been caught in any other way. I don’t know. And you go ahead and cherry pick your example. Someone said Ted Bundy the serial killer was caught through a random traffic stop.
I am I’m always amused by these stories: OK we did this one thing and it worked this one time. So now let’s institutionalize it across the board with no other statistics. No other data, just cherry picking a few results. The pushback is that I’ve gotten from law enforcement people is “OK with all the investigators stopped, what do we do? How do we stop crime? How do we help these poor struggling neighborhoods who are — one person wrote they’re overrun with gang bangers — how do we deal with them?”
And I’m going to tell you I’m not exactly sure. I don’t know. I’m not gonna pretend that. I don’t know exactly. But if you’re telling me that the only way we can begin to control crime in high crime areas is the random — using traffic laws as a random pretext to essentially stop and get up in people’s business, and that is what law enforcement has become in this country, I’m sad. I’m really sad, because that’s not the kind of country I want to live in. And that’s not the kind of America I think any of us really wants, right?. That’s certainly not the Fourth Amendment. That’s certainly not the intention of the founding fathers when they wrote the Constitution. That’s certainly not the type of civil society that any of us aspire to live in.
I know there are really smart people out there working on this. I know they’re really smart people out there in law enforcement and law enforcement community who have ideas on how to solve this problem.
What I’m contending is that the laziness of the engineering profession should not be a pretext for those things.
And the more and more we make it, the more we’re going to have a divided society, the more we’re going to put cops at risk, and the more that we’re going to have designs and places and streets that are just simply not safe.
I want our laws to matter.
I want them to be enforced, and to have that we have to have a different mindset and a different approach to traffic violations.
It is time to end the routine traffic stop.