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

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

“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.”

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?

“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.”

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?”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/19/2020 - 10:19 am.

    This will be a long – very long – and uphill – very uphill – fight in a society as auto-centric and, for lack of a better term, punishment-oriented, as ours currently seems to be. Simply agreeing on terminology will take a long time, and truckloads of rhetoric, not to mention many more books extolling the virtues of this or that approach to traffic. More to the point raised by Mr. Narayanan, casting the debate in terms of “police violence” is essentially misdirection, as is characterizing traffic safety as a majority / minority issue.

    Police violence does not, at least inherently, immediately involve enforcement of traffic rules and regulations, though it may be that it’s on that traffic enforcement front that disparities are more easily seen. “Driving while Black” is a phrase that didn’t spring into existence out of a vacuum, and there’s plenty of research to support the assertion that, whatever the rules are, they’re enforced disproportionately against drivers of color. Violence on the part of those doing the enforcing, however, seems to me a separate issue from which side of the street to drive on, or how fast, or when to yield to a bicyclist or pedestrian.

    I’m inclined to take at least minor issue with Bill’s statement that “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.” I’d suggest that casting basic government services as “illegitimate” is not a worldview widely shared in the society at large, but is instead a viewpoint / philosophy shared by extremists. Recently, those extremists have mostly been on the right, with AR-15-brandishing masked figures insisting that they should be able to do whatever they want (a view they have in common with the current President), but to a lesser degree (and it was greater in past eras) they might come from the left, too, though anarchy is not as fashionable on the left now as it was a century ago.

    I’d also dispute (mildly) the assumptions underlying Mr. Lugo’s suggestion that minority-led street safety efforts will be defined substantially differently (with some exceptions) than they currently are. It seems reasonable to suggest that, if you can’t afford the expense of buying and maintaining an automobile, “street safety” might well look different, and have different priorities, than it does for people whose mobility is largely auto-centric. One need not go beyond a cursory examination of street safety in European and / or Asian societies to see alternative approaches. That said, casting the issue as a White / Black / POC issue is not going to get a lot of buy-in from what is, after all, the largest “color” group of the three, and also seems to imply an issue and response based on economics at least as much as ethnicity. Just as Black drivers and citizens bristle at biased enforcement of existing traffic rules and regulations, it seems reasonable to suggest that White drivers and citizens might bristle just as much at new rules and regulations that disproportionately affect them.

    When public transit becomes genuinely available to everyone, and has efficiency that at least comes close to matching individual, private, motorized transit as now practiced by an automobile-driving public, then different modes of thought about getting from point A to point B in timely and inexpensive fashion will be both useful and appropriate. There are large, urban areas around the globe that seem to think in those terms.

    I don’t think we’re even close to being there yet, in any of Minnesota’s cities, including its largest, and much of the discussion so far ignores the transit needs of small-town and rural residents. As a side note, I’ll add that on many days, I’m alternately a driver and a walker. My experiences with cyclists suggest that safety and courtesy are no more widely practiced among those on two wheels in regard to pedestrians than they are by those using four wheels in regard to cyclists.

    • Submitted by Kyle Anderson on 06/19/2020 - 11:36 am.

      As someone who participates in the transportation system as a cyclist, driver, pedestrian, and transit rider I find that the mode of transportation that I use does not impact my behavior. My behavior is usually dictated by time. If I am ahead of schedule and I am on my bike I will always yield to a pedestrian who is waiting to cross a street. If I am late I tend to keep going and make the pedestrian wait to cross unless they are already in the crosswalk. Ultimately if we could all just leave 5 minutes earlier we would all be much safer.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/19/2020 - 01:19 pm.

      For evidence of my claim about the legitimacy of government, look no farther than the nonsense that has emerged about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most countries in the Global North do not have this level of resistance to even the most basic public health regulations.

      As for which groups of people breaks more rules, I would urge everyone not to rely on personal experiences, but to actually study some of the data about things like speeding, stop sign compliance, distracted driving, etc. Anecdotes get us almost nowhere.

      • Submitted by John Adams on 06/21/2020 - 09:42 pm.

        Hi, Bill:

        Readers interested in automated traffic control may wish to read a report we did at the Center for Transportation Studies at the U of M: RESEARCH REPORT
        “Automated Enforcement of Red-Light Running & Speeding Laws in Minnesota: Bridging Technology and Public Policy,” by John S. Adams Barbara J. VanDrasek
        (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Center for Transportation Studies, CTS report #09-26). The report is available free on line [], and a printed copy can be purchased.

        A few years ago, a CTS scholar and staff member at the Humphrey School, Frank Duama, did a follow-up to our study study in which he examined the bases for the widespread objections in Minnesota to the use of red-light cameras and speed cameras.

        Such technologies are deployed in many other states and produce substantial benefits in reductions in crashes, injuries and deaths, as well as significant reductions in casualty insurance rates.

        The Minnesota Legislature, to date, has refused to authorize their use in Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/21/2020 - 05:30 pm.

    It seems that so much of traffic safety can be done “contact free”. Speeding, parking, moving violations like a red light drive through or failure to signal, missing lights, all can be noted either by “meter maid” or electronically.

    Send out the ticket, offer a big discount if paid in 30 days, such as nothing over $25.00 and even a community service option.

    After 30 days it is the normal fine plus 1.5% per month interest. If it is not paid by the next license tab renewal it goes on the tab bill. We have traffic monitoring license plate recognition in many locations right now: Let that identify expired tabs, relay it to a towing service and the debt is settled by paying up or auctioning the vehicle with the proceeds going to the owner after settling up on the fines.

    I have gotten a few robo tickets (Be really careful in downtown Cedar Rapids, just North of the river bridge on the interstate) and it is beyond annoying. But, it does not discriminate and if it produces more frequent violations at a reduced cost I can live with it.

    The placement of robo ticket cameras can be discriminatory, but analysis of the frequency of tickets by geography is way to be sure it is equitable.

    Sandra Bland, Philandro Castille, Rashard Brooks all were killed during an unneeded escalation during a traffic stop.

    Disband the MPD, contract criminal enforcement with the Hennepin County Sheriff, an elected official, and build a new group of community service people to manage the rest.

    And living in the community you support is a key element: if it can’t be required, it can be significantly incentivized.

    • Submitted by Wally Norlander on 06/21/2020 - 08:11 pm.

      I guess I have never understood the antagonism that law-breakers feel about robo-cameras. Is it that they need the thrill of the chase? Do they hate the idea of being caught on camera? If you break the law, you should do the time.

  3. Submitted by Jim Marshal on 06/21/2020 - 07:34 pm.

    Part of the traffic enforcement aspect no one talks about is how the state and local jurisdictions here in MN and elsewhere pad these traffic citations. Someone guilty of a minor traffic offense is issued a $100 fine. That fine ultimately has an additional $100 to $150 in additional opaque fees added to it along with credit card processing fees. It’s essentially a scam meant to fleece drivers in order to fund the big banks and law enforcement agencies. We take an affordable fine and turn it into an unaffordable one that ultimately ends up with the violator losing their license and having a warrant issued for their arrest.

  4. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/22/2020 - 11:19 am.

    New York City’s transportation advocacy group just came out with a long report and recommendations on just this issue. Interested folks should check it out:

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/22/2020 - 12:11 pm.

      Thanks for that.

      It spells out a problem based on real data and offers solutions also based on real data. All in the spirit of an actual, non-partisan, approach to fixing a problem. Hmm… almost scientific in its’ approach.

      Which of course dooms it to the dust heap of good ideas killed by self interested politicians more interested in securing their next election victory and keeping their sweet political gig than actually serving the citizens they represent.

      The three references above to actual studies all support the idea of “contact free” traffic safety. And a big part of that is automation: cameras and sensors. Very few politicians want anything to do with so controversial a topic.

      “Put my name on a bill to automate speeding tickets? Are you nuts?”

      So they will continue to fight and argue over meaningless minutiae that will have no effect anyway.

      Sad to say, I don’t see anyway things get better if the folks at the capital in St Paul need to lead the way…

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