Disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly police enforcement, have been a major source of political protest and social unrest in the United States. Motor vehicle enforcement is a frequent focus of the conversation because it is the public’s most frequent interaction with law enforcement.
On average, police in Connecticut conduct more than 500,000 traffic stops each year. The tragic killing of Tyre Nichols following a traffic stop has reignited calls to reexamine the role police should play in traffic safety.
As I was beginning my law enforcement career, traffic enforcement tactics were changing in response to a 1980s effort to bolster drug interdiction activities. Law enforcement agencies like the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) understood that motor vehicle laws afforded police a unique opportunity to enhance drug interdiction programs.
In 1986, the DEA developed a popular program called “Operation Pipeline” which trained officers to use more aggressive enforcement of motor vehicle laws to increase the opportunities for interactions with drivers to combat drugs entering our communities. Officers were trained to stop suspected drug couriers for traffic violations, such as low-level equipment or administrative offenses, as a pretext to question and search the driver. This type of enforcement became associated with modern-day racial profiling and its legacy is still felt in Black and Hispanic communities across the country.
After all that we learned about our failures during the war on drugs, vestiges of this type of traffic enforcement still exist today. As we contemplate new ways of defining how police interact with the public, the legislature should consider the thoughtful proposal developed by Connecticut’s Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force to reform some of our traffic laws with an eye toward equity and public safety.
The primary goal of traffic enforcement needs to be roadway safety. As research from the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project has highlighted, stops for minor equipment and administrative offenses rarely meet this objective and take police away from focusing on more hazardous driving behavior. In fact, researchers noted that between 2019 and 2021, police in Connecticut spent the same amount of time enforcing violations for low-level equipment and administrative offenses as they did for traffic light, stop sign, and cell phone violations combined.
In 2022, Connecticut saw more than 380 roadway fatalities, one of the deadliest years on record. According to Connecticut’s crash data repository, excessive speeding contributes to the largest share of all traffic crashes. Failure to stay in the proper lane and following too closely are the largest contributing factors to crashes that result in injury. The most common equipment issues reported that contributed to a motor vehicle crash were related to brakes, steering, power train, or tires. Police rarely, if ever, stop a car for an issue with brakes, steering, power train, or tires. The equipment issues that police do stop a car for typically relate to defective lights, which contribute to less than 0.1% of all crashes.
In addition to our knowledge that low-level equipment and administrative offenses have little to no impact on roadway safety, annual reports by the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project identified racial and ethnic disparities in stops for these violations. Connecticut’s researchers continue to highlight that there is no evidence that Black or Hispanic drivers are more likely to have equipment violations, but they point to different enforcement strategies being used in different neighborhoods.
Traffic enforcement of low-level offenses means that limited police resources are going toward ineffective strategies which could be better spent on what does work to prevent fatalities on our roadways. When departments prioritize stops for hazardous driving behavior, they see better results regarding roadway safety and there is the added benefit of significant reductions in racial and ethnic disparities.
The bill proposed by the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, which I served on with other members of law enforcement and communities, would help to clarify some traffic laws to better reflect their intended safety goals and minimize the opportunity for biased and ineffective policing. It would designate certain low-level, low-risk violations as secondary violations, meaning police should only address those issues when they are already stopping someone for a more serious offense like speeding.
The bill takes a measured approach to make modest, but meaningful reforms to a select group of traffic laws, many of which were written decades ago. Although the proposal may not go as far as some have advocated, the offenses we selected follow a careful data analysis on what causes traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Our primary focus must be to ensure that our motor vehicle code prioritizes holding people accountable for aggressive driving behavior that leads to injury and death.
These reforms will make clear that the primary objective of traffic enforcement must be the safety of all motorists and pedestrians. We cannot afford another year of record roadway fatalities.
This law will not only make our roadways safer by focusing our enforcement efforts on hazardous and aggressive driving behaviors, but it can also significantly improve the fractured relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve. We understand that some communities are still grappling with a legacy of police enforcement of low-level offenses that may have harmed our legitimacy in those communities.
Effective policing must be based on trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the communities we serve. This bill is a small step toward achieving that goal.
Chief John “Jack” Drumm has led the Madison Police Department since 2010.