Monday, 10 August 2015

A Precinct House, a String of Deaths - and How to Stop Traffic Stops from Gambling with People's Lives

One day in mid-June, having taken a rare week off work, I was walking my son to school when we spotted two curled-up $20 bills on the sidewalk. It was the kind of sum that, to many people in our area, might be entirely inconsequential. But, to, say, a struggling food delivery cyclist or cleaner, those two bills might, I thought, represent a substantial loss. With that thought in mind and being temperamentally unsuited to pocketing something I hadn’t earned, I headed after I’d dropped the Invisible Visible Boy at school to report the cash as lost property at the New York Police Department’s 76th Precinct House.
Unlikely site for an epiphany: the NYPD's 76th precinct house.

As I sat waiting for someone to talk to me about my discovery, however, I noticed something significant about the layout of the area around the station house’s main entrance. Behind the public counter, by the door – in a position where they would be the last thing many officers would see before heading out on patrol – stood three memorials to officers from the precinct who’d died in the line of duty. Among them was Maitland Mercer, a patrolman shot dead in 1965 while off duty and trying to arrest a suspect.

The plaques excited mixed emotions in me. Each of the deaths – although each occurred decades apart – must have shocked and appalled the dead men’s fellow officers and devastated their families. I was horrified by the killing of two New York police officers just before Christmas. But the memorials were also, it seemed to me, manifestations of a culture around US law enforcement that celebrates the profession’s dangers and focuses on violent confrontations, at the expense of a more collaborative philosophy. The near cult-like celebration of fallen police officers encourages, I suspect, the dangerous idea that virtuous officers are engaged in a Manichean struggle against dark forces every time they leave the precinct house.

I quickly moved on to worrying about something else. If I felt so uneasy about the culture surrounding US policing, it occurred to me, wasn’t it strange that I instinctively wanted police officers to be tougher on traffic violations? It’s a striking feature of the many of the highest-profile killings of black people by police that the incidents in question start with traffic stops. The killing in April of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, by a police officer followed a stop for a broken brake light. Samuel DuBose died on July 19 in Cincinnati after being stopped by a University of Cincinnati police officer who thought (wrongly, given the local law) he was missing a vehicle licence plate. Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a Texas jail cell on July 13, had been stopped three days earlier for not using her indicators to pull her car over as a police officer followed her.
NYPD cruisers in midtown: a force for road safety?
I’ve had regular cause since that moment in the 76th precinct house to ask myself: is it possible to reconcile an effort to tighten up traffic policing on the US’s roads with a desire to cut the dreadful annual toll of deaths at the hands of police officers?

The starting point in the search for an answer is to unpick what’s actually going on in the traffic stops that end in an officer’s standing over some black person’s prone body – which is that few of them seem to involve serious safety violations. It’s important that vehicles have working brake lights, that drivers use their indicators and that vehicles bear appropriate licence plates. But it’s significant, it seems to me, that neither Sandra Bland nor Samuel DuBose nor Walter Scott was stopped, say, for speeding or using a mobile phone while driving or refusing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk – all offences that lead to thousands of deaths annually in the US.

These traffic stops seem, instead, to have had far more in common with the kind of policing-as-harassment tactics that are familiar in many parts of the world but for which the US has a particular predilection. The broken tail-light, the apparently missing licence plate, the momentary failure to signal aren’t of much interest to the officer. The point – as it was with the New York Police Department’s now-abandoned Stop and Frisk policy of searching people on the flimsiest of pretexts – seems far more to have been to exert control.

The motivation often appears to be for officers to mark their territory and stamp their authority on anyone who seems suspicious to them – a group that seems inevitably disproportionately to include African-Americans. The simplest act of defiance – such as Sandra Bland’s continuing to smoke a cigarette while a police officer addressed her – seems in such a context to be an act of infuriating insolence that demands a response.
These NYPD officers may be fine, upstanding people -
but it's easier to understand the system where they work
if one understands it's racist.
It’s easier to understand why such a high proportion of the New York Police Department’s traffic stops are for the apparently minor offence of having excessively tinted windows when one sees traffic stops as part of a racist system. It’s a modification that officers associate with the desire of members of minority groups to hide from onlookers, especially the police. It’s a relatively minor safety issue but a significant affront to police officers who experience traffic policing as a kind of primal marking of their territory.

Still more reprehensibly, it’s clear that many municipalities – notably Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing a year ago of Michael Brown, a young black man, by a white police officer started the current agitation over policing violence – use traffic stops as an important source of revenue. The US justice department’s report on the municipality in March recorded pressure from the town authorities on the police to ramp up ticketing to raise money for the budget. It also noted that 85 per cent of vehicle stops in Ferguson were of black people, although they made up only 67 per cent of the population.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the US writer criticises the arbitrary, racist thinking behind such policing in Between the World and Me, his superb new book about growing up as an African-American man. The book talks at length about how Prince Jones, a black college friend of Coates’, was killed by police in an apparently unjustified traffic stop in Virginia in 2000.

“You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” Coates writes to his 15-year-old son. “It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.”

Yet, while it’s impossible to defend contemporary traffic policing in the US, I’m also deeply resistant to the idea – which seems to be gaining ground amid the discrediting of current behaviour – that traffic policing is a trivial matter that could reasonably be put aside as part of the police’s responsibilities. A better-focused system of traffic policing could surely improve on the US’s current dismal record on road safety. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 32,719 people died on the US’s roads. The US’s minorities – who disproportionately live in areas poorly served with crosswalks and public transport – must suffer a disproportionate share of these deaths too.

Nuneham Courtenay: a rural idyll, protected by speed camera
As a result, I’ve found my mind turning increasingly to the village of Nuneham Courtenay,in Oxfordshire, in England, which I visited in 2011. I visited the village the day after residents achieved their aim of having reactivated a speed camera that had significantly slowed traffic on the 30mph road that divides the village. The camera had been deactivated as part of a populist backlash against cameras under the coalition government after the UK’s 2010 general election. Villagers had looked on in horror as, without the threat of a speeding fine, drivers increasingly ignored signs telling them to slow down from the 70mph speed limit on the roads outside to the far slower speed required when passing right by villagers’ front doors.

It’s an obvious virtue of mechanising the process of policing bad driving that the policing is no longer subject to arbitrary considerations such as whether policing staffing is down because of school holidays. It’s also helpful that cameras are generally places where there’s general agreement they’re serving a real safety, not fund-raising purpose. In the UK, the main criterion has been that four people should have been killed or seriously injured at a site in the past four years. It’s also, however, a great virtue of cameras that they won’t display racist bias. Policing should be far more closely linked to drivers’ behaviour and far less linked to their race.
Officers from the NYPD's 28th precinct demonstrate
how seriously they take road safety, by parking blocking
a bike lane in Harlem
A nationwide programme of speed and red light camera installation across the US could, if wisely implemented, be part of a wholesale rethinking of policing in the area. It’s clear that there are some violations – such as the use of phones while driving – that it will always be hard to hand over to cameras. But it would be transformative, as I’ve argued before, to start linking the promotion prospects of officers charged with traffic policing to the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on their roads, rather than to the number of tickets issued. Such a policy would immediately, I’d guess, eliminate many NYPD precincts’ enthusiasm for ticketing cyclists – a form of harassment that’s far less grave than that against black people and other minorities but stems, I think, from a similar desire to exert control over a group seen as troublesome outsiders.

Not that I sensed any mood for revolutionary change at the 76th precinct. Before I could even finish my explanation about finding the money, an officer interrupted, shouting across the room, to demand what identification I’d found with the money. None, I replied.

“We will never find the owner of that money,” the officer replied, sending me burdened with the Protestant guilt of an unearned $40, back into the street.

His last words rang in my ears as I trudged back towards the apartment.

“Sometimes it’s just your lucky day,” he said.

It wasn’t, a voice in my head objected, a lucky day for the person who’d lost $40 on the way to the subway, though, was it?

The idea fed into concerns far more significant than a mere $40. There is no element of luck attached to whether a driver gets a speeding ticket in Nuneham Courtenay. Luck plays far too large an element both in whether US police forces catch dangerous traffic violations – and in whether people stopped by US traffic patrols survive the encounter. It’s an obscene gambling with lives that can be and should be stopped.


  1. The attitude to speed cameras in the UK seems to be one of "well its not really a crime..." hence the requirement that they are clearly marked. Locations appear on car GPS systems as well so the driver can be warned.

    An analogy would be publicising the whereabouts of all police in advance so people would know when and where they need to be law abiding.

    1. Michael,

      Thanks for the comment. I suppose the argument would be that, if the cameras are indeed at the most dangerous spots, they will still be effective even if people know their locations. It's certainly better to have some cameras than barely any at all, as is the case in much of the US.

      All the best,


  2. You are correct. Robert. The rational is that cameras are to reduce speed, not ticket offenders. Otherwise, many would lose their license after four offences rapidly on the M25 motorway in London where cameras are fixed every mile. Sure, some drivers speed up and slow down repeatedly, but most adjust their driving.

    Average speed cameras such as those recently deployed on the A9 I. The Highlands of Scotland are very effective, the A9 showing impressive reductions in speed, casualties, and road rage incidents.

    Dr Robbie Coull
    Immediate Care (EMS) Physician
    Police Forensic Physician
    Member Institute Advanced Motorists
    Emergency Response Driver Trained (Ambulance)

    1. Robbie,

      Thanks for the comment.

      There often seems to be some magical thinking about these issues, as if the laws of physics didn't apply to cars and it made no difference to safety how fast vehicles went. I've been dismayed by the UK government's cowardice about this issue, Average speed cameras are, as you say, an excellent innovation.

      All the best,


  3. I disagree that failure to signal is not a serious safety violation. Many crashes would be prevented if drivers signaled before turning. And I mean BEFORE turning. Of the few that bother to signal, many only do it once they are halfway through the turn.

    This is especially important when cyclists are involved, given that a large fraction of fatal crashes happen when a motorist turns across a cyclist's path. If motorists bothered to signal before turning, they would be giving the cyclist a couple seconds' warning which might be the difference between life and death.

    But yes, I agree that traffic stops can be used as an excuse for searching or harassing and that racism is often involved.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I should perhaps clarify. I think drivers should signal and I get very frustrated as a cyclist at the number of times motorists suddenly make a turn - often across a cycle lane - with no warning. In Sandra Bland's case, however, she was tailgated by a speeding police officer and, not realising he was chasing her, moved a lane over to let him pass and forgot to signal when doing so. I'm not convinced that's a major safety issue and it's clear that it was used only as a pretext.

      The point of the post is that the police are picking up on fairly small-bore stuff and ignoring violations that actually affect road safety. I'm pretty clear the Sandra Bland case fits into that pattern.

      All the best,


  4. Partly, the whole "tinted windows, busted taillight" enforcement tendency has to do with such violations being their own physical evidence and difficult to dispute. It's just an easy ticket to write.

    1. Matt,

      Thank you for your comment. It's true there's a huge element of laziness in cops' actions. I've long argued this is a big part of why bike stings are popular. They're much less hard work than stopping speeding cars. But there's also clearly a "let's-check-this-out" stop and I strongly suspect many tinted windows stops are like that.

      All the best,


  5. It's amazing what $40 can do to your mind, huh? Anyway, everything you thought of is really on-point. The thing is, how can we expect to have fair and just road decorum when even our police/traffic enforcers are sometimes the ones who don't follow themselves?

  6. Replies
    1. Steve,

      Thank you, as ever, for your valued comments.

      I'm sorry there hasn't been a new post on here in, like, forever. Here's what's going on. I had a five-week sabbatical over the summer and, apart from the bit I used for the family vacation, I spent the remaining two-and-a-half weeks trying to work up content from this blog into a book proposal. The consensus among the agents to whom I sent that material was that the way I was planning to do it didn't really work. But one of them thought an alternative treatment could work. I've consequently been spending all the free time since then that would have gone into writing new posts on trying to rework the trial chapters for the book proposals to fit the new concept.

      It doesn't help that a number of things including family obligations, the pressure of news at work and the need to make some extra money by doing extra writing have all severely limited the spare time available in the last little while. So I've made less progress than I'd like.

      I regret not regularly putting up new posts because I enjoy it and there's the instant gratification of comments like yours, views and so on. I hope to get back to it as soon as I can. But I am focusing on the bigger goal for the moment.

      Watch this space, as they say - and, if anyone who's reading this is interested in publishing a book based on the blog or representing me, I'm interested to hear from him/her. My email is robert dot wright at ft dot com.

      I hope all's well out there in the Pacific North West (if you're currently there, rather than Texas).

      All the best,


  7. Glad to hear you're still around and good luck with the book - I for one would definitely be interested in reading that if you ever get it written and published.



    1. Ijon,

      Thank you for your kind words. I'm doing my best to get something into print.


  8. I'm also glad you're well and productive. I came comment hunting in the hope of an update. Maybe a brief blog entry for your followers could be done? Cheers, Doug

    1. Doug,

      I have exceeded your demands and put up a full blogpost. I hope you enjoy it.


  9. Many thanks Invisible. A fine entry and one I hope to comment on :) Cheers, Doug


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