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A revived debate: What role should police play in traffic safety?

Those who want to see less police enforcement offer varied solutions, including design and education approaches; regulations on devices that distract drivers; and automatic cameras for red-light running.

Commander Jeremy Ellison
Commander Jeremy Ellison demonstrates safe crosswalk behavior: one foot out, hand raised.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Lindeke

“We are opposed to using police in transportation to improve safety,” said Ash Narayanan, the executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, the city’s largest transportation advocacy group.

Ashwat Narayanan
Ash Narayanan
For Our Streets, opposition to police isn’t something new. Last July, the group made local waves announcing that it did not support traffic enforcement as a tool for street safety. At the time, its Twitter feed filled with replies from transportation advocates challenging the feasibility of an anti-policing position.

But a lot has changed since then. Most notably, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resulting demonstrations that shine a blinding spotlight on systemic police violence.

“What does transportation safety mean?” asked Narayanan, when I asked him about the policy. “It’s often focused around reducing severe injuries, crashes and fatalities. [But] we also don’t talk about the reality of police violence that led to killings of so many black community members.”

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Our Streets Minneapolis began in 2009 as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, a bike advocacy group that has led the charge on improve bicycling throughout the city. It  changed its name in 2017, to expand its mission to include people with disabilities, people walking, and a broader vision for transportation.

According to Narayanan, the organization began to shift its attitudes toward police during that time, especially after members read a blog post by anthropologist Adonia Lugo, describing working with Vision Zero campaigns. In it she argues that those efforts, such as the one in Minneapolis, have routinely ignored calls to change the role of policing:

I was alarmed that a pillar of Vision Zero was increased police enforcement of traffic violations, in the same year that multiracial groups were filling streets across the United States to call attention to the deadly effects of racial profiling in policing.

Mobility justice

After writing that piece, Lugo helped form a new group called The Untokening, which has been attempting to shift conversations around transportation in ways that better reflect the legacies of racial injustice on city streets.

“We’re working on mobility justice as our shared vision for safe streets,” explained Lugo, describing her group. “We knew that police enforcement caused more harm than good, what with the racialized violence it sanctioned and the debt cycle unpaid traffic tickets could feed into.”

Following the lead of The Untokening group, over the following years, Our Streets Minneapolis launched a work group focused on equity and Vision Zero, and developed its new stance on police enforcement.

“Some of this is just really uncharted territory,” said Narayanan. “Minneapolis often has been proud of taking the lead on things that maybe have not been replicated in other parts of the world. We can really be the first city in U.S. that has no enforcement in its Vision Zero program.”

Rather than relying on police to maintain traffic safety, Narayanan encourages Minneapolis transportation planners to turn to design and education approaches, and policies that offer “the widest possible array of low and zero carbon transportation choices [by which] any trip can be made by walking, biking, transit scooters or folks who wanted to drive personal electric vehicles.”

Is a post-police street possible?

Even with a groundswell of support, decoupling cops and traffic safety remains a key challenge. Police spend a large amount of their time dealing with problems associated with driving, mostly responding to crashes, which also ties up court systems. (See this anecdote from a judge in Washington state, claiming that 90% of their cases had to do with car accidents.)

If they don’t do this work, how can cities reduce the vehicular carnage caused on its streets every year?

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“While it would be nice if our transport facilities were all self-enforcing, discouraging bad behavior through good design, we are nowhere near that yet,” replied David Levinson, when I asked him about this topic. Levinson, a civil engineering professor, headed the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory for years before moving to Australia to take a position at the University of Sydney.

Rethinking policing is not something new to Levinson. After the killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights during a traffic stop in 2016, Levinson wrote two posts on his blog outlining reforms to police enforcement of traffic rules. In them, he called for reducing racial bias in policing, through five potential changes like vehicle inspections, fine reform, and decreasing primary offenses.

But he remains skeptical about removing police altogether.

“I would say there needs to be some enforcement, but it does not need to be traditional police enforcement in the vast majority of cases,” he said. “Random enforcement, like police just hanging out looking for broken taillights, is unnecessary and there is no evidence that it increases safety. Similarly, programs targeting pedestrians are without evidence in improving safety, as far I have seen.”

Rethinking safety campaigns

Reducing interactions between police and the public poses sticky problems for movements like the state and local Vision Zero efforts, which call for reduced speed limits or enforcement of new distracted driving laws that ban hand-held phones.

For example, the Minneapolis Vision Zero action plan, adopted last December, calls for reducing speeding, red-light running, and impaired driving through coordination between engineers, educators, and police. While the plan takes great pains to center systemic inequity and people of color, often most impacted by unsafe streets, it also calls for tactics such as “high-visibility enforcement with warnings to increase awareness and compliance with new speed limits.”

The role of the police poses a similar challenge in neighboring St. Paul, where ongoing efforts like the “Stop for Me” crosswalk campaign rely on a combination of targeted police crosswalk stings and education campaigns. At first glance, this kind of work seems all but impossible in an urban landscape that does not rely on policing.

Volunteer pedestrians working at the Stop For Me event at Maryland and Green brier while a St. Paul police officer watches for infractions in the background.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Lindeke
Volunteer pedestrians working at the Stop For Me event at Maryland and Green brier while a St. Paul police officer watches for infractions in the background.
“I’ve long believed that fear of ticketing is a motivator for drivers to comply with speed limits or other roadway laws,” said Nichole Morris, who heads the HumanFIRST lab at the University of Minnesota and has been coordinating the Stop for Me efforts for the past two years. “[But] while that still may be true for some drivers, if we look to the literature, there is little or, at best, mixed evidence that speeding citations result in significant long-term reductions in speeding.”

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Rather than enforcement, Morris points to other technical solutions that can reduce risk before crashes even occur. For example, Morris would love to see regulations on phone companies and carmakers and to reduce dangerous technologies — like GM’s Supercruise system. She’d also like to see many more bump-outs that slow speeds and boost safety for people on foot.

“Ultimately, enforcement in any form treats the symptoms and not the causes of risky driving,” she said. “ We can’t enforce our way out of phone-related distracted driving. It’s too pervasive and too hard to detect.”

Automated cameras: good or bad?

While most transportation advocates agree that traditional tickets are not the central solution to traffic safety, other enforcement approaches prove much more divisive. Most notably, automated speed and red-light cameras engender dramatically different reactions. On one hand, both Morris and Levinson believe they are a better solution than police, and point to studies in support of this approach.

Dr. Nichole Morris training volunteers to study crosswalk law compliance in St. Paul, fall of 2018.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Lindeke
Nichole Morris, right, training volunteers to study crosswalk law compliance in St. Paul, fall of 2018.
“I have been studying automated speed enforcement (ASE) for many years and I still believe it is an effective alternative to in-person enforcement,” explained Morris. “There are still risks to automated enforcement regarding decision making on where to place cameras and how to implement a fee structure. Each decision could result in disproportional impacts or harm on minority populations if not done thoughtfully.”

According to Morris, speed cameras, like the ones deployed around New York City schools and in other countries, also reduce bias, so that white drivers are not more likely to be let off with a warning, and additionally pose “little risk of escalation or violence” by police officers.

It’s a sentiment shared by Levinson, who sees cameras as a solution: “There is strong evidence that photo enforcement of speeding and red-light running is effective, if also abused in different ways, notably as a cash cow, and deployment needs to not just be in poor neighborhoods.”

Nichole Morris
Nichole Morris
On the other hand, automatic cameras are a nonstarter for Narayanan, who sees them as part of a punitive fine-based system that has long been unequally impactful on communities of color.

“Red-light cameras in my mind are just another part of same system that has brutalized our black and brown community members,” said Narayanan. “[They] seek to gets folks to comply through threat of punishment [and] it’s opposed to our philosophy of harm reduction.”

Narayanan points out that cameras can also be used as a tool for surveillance; for example, Immigrations and Custom’s Enforcement could theoretically use their data to victimize immigrant communities. He argues that “[those] calling for cameras are suffering from failure of imagination,” and we should instead be pushing for transformative change of our streets.

(At this point, it’s a moot point because any use legalization of cameras would have to come from the state Legislature.)

What next?

Over the next year, the debate over reimagining the Minneapolis Police Department promises to dominate conversation at City Hall. As detailed proposals begin to emerge, the difficult question of traffic enforcement will be an ongoing question for anyone thinking about a new vision for community safety.

Even something as simple as parking tickets makes the difficulty apparent. If the idea is to replace parking enforcement “officers” with something more benign, that’s been tried before. As journalist Aaron Gordon described, parking tickets used to be handled by “meter maids,” but they began dressing and acting more like official police once angry drivers began hassling them and refusing to accept fines. Figuring out how to strike a balance around enforcing even basic rules becomes increasingly difficult in a society that views even basic government services as fundamentally illegitimate.

For Our Streets Minneapolis, the first step in that conversation is to take police enforcement off the table. They began an email campaign last week aimed at “removing all traffic enforcement policies” from the city’s transportation plans.

It’s an idea that, for justice advocates like Lugo, out in California, is long overdue.

“I’d say the way forward is to invest our public dollars in nonviolent street safety efforts defined and led by Black, Indigenous, POC communities,” Lugo said. “These efforts probably won’t look the same as white-led bike/ped planning. They’ll probably be more fluid, land-based, and humanistic. Are the advocates for white-centered street safety models going to get on board with this, or are they going to keep taking space for their vision of the future?”