vanderbilt on traffic stops

In a piece on the positive side effects of traffic enforcement, Tom Vanderbilt writes:

Police insist there is no such thing as a "routine traffic stop." For one, there is the hazard of the stop itself. One analysis found that in a 10-year period, 89 officers were killed and more than 600,000 were assaulted by the persons they had pulled over.

This caught my attention for a few reasons. One, I recently had a friend who had a gun pulled on him by a police officer under pretty dubious circumstances, an incident that illustrates just how aggressive the default approach of the police to the rest of us really is. (No one was hurt or arrested, but that's rather beside the point.) Two, I read Radley Balko, and if that doesn't make you worry about police tactics--particularly if you live in an economically diverse neighborhood--nothing will. Finally, danger to officers is cited as the primary justification for the overwhelming show of force, even in a traffic stop. The thing about the statistic Vanderbilt quotes above is that it is immediately preceded by this one:

According to Department of Justice estimates, in 1999 there were 43,800,000 "contacts" between police and the public nationwide, and 52 percent of these were traffic stops.

By my back of the envelope calculations, that puts the number of traffic stops in a year at 22.8 million, and assuming that number is representative, this means the odds of an officer being killed during a traffic stop are about one in 2.6 million. As a reference point, the odds of being hit by lightening sometime in your life comes out to about one in 5000. (Other sources put the lifetime risk closer to 1 in 80,000. Either way, it's much, much more likely.)

I'm sympathetic with the large point Vanderbilt is making: that traffic enforcement can produce very real returns to public safety, particularly in residential neighborhoods. But I can't get on board with the idea that stops are "a net for catching bigger fish," particularly when this is coupled to the idea that the supposed danger inherent to traffic stops justifies police aggression against otherwise law-abiding citizens. And I find the fact that he puts "warrantless searches" in scare-quotes just plain chilling.

I do want to emphasize that I don't really have an argument with Vanderbilt on the public safety argument for traffic policing, insofar as "public safety" in this context is referring specifically to the safety of people on or near the public roads. My criticism is that the danger posed to pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers by traffic violators is sufficient to justify high levels of enforcement, and that his point about catching career criminals is 1)superfluous and 2) fosters the "us vs. them" mentality that is poisoning the relationship between police and the communities that they serve. Moreover, the actual danger to officers in the course of a routine (yes, routine) traffic stop does not justify treating every person pulled over as a potential criminal.


mrsdependable said...

I agree that the #1 priority for enforcing traffic laws is to curtail unsafe behavior that threatens life and limb...although I'm not opposed to bonus points if the police also happen to catch someone out on a warrant or driving with a suspended license. But in Durham, where the police have stated that traffic enforcement is low priority because they have more important crime to deal with, the notion that traffic enforcement can be an aid and not a distraction is an important point.

Brian said...

Fair enough!