Traffic Stop Practices Must Be Rid of Racial Biases


Issuing traffic tickets can quickly become violent in many situations. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Many cities and towns are financed by traffic ticket revenue, creating an incentive for cops to pull more people over and write more tickets. At least 20 cities evaluate officer performance by the number of stops or tickets written per hour and even offer raises and promotions in return for writing more tickets. Critics argue that this has led to over-policing, more violent police encounters and community distrust of police departments, especially among people of color. Routine traffic stops have turned violent, leading to the injury and deaths of hundreds of drivers, most of which are Black. In January, NPR found that at least 135 unarmed Black men and women were killed in traffic stops since 2015. Low-level traffic offenses should be deemphasized to minimize police traffic stops that could turn violent. 

Nearly 600 towns get over 10% of their police department revenue from ticket and court fines. In addition, many of these towns have disproportionately large police departments relative to the number of residents, leading to suspicion over whether ticket-writing is encouraged by police departments to make money for local governments. North Carolina court data concluded that “significantly more tickets” were issued when localities experienced financial difficulties, suggesting they were “used as a revenue-generation tool rather than solely a means to increase public safety.” Although federal officials deny imposing quotas on tickets, the government issues over $600 million a year in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing. 

Seat Pleasant, Maryland, for example, has around 4,800 residents with 24 full-time police officers, a 3-person dedicated automated speed enforcement team and a drone aviation unit. Red-light and speeding ticket revenue made up almost half of the town’s budget in 2019. 

Also in 2019, Henderson, Louisiana got 89% of their revenue from ticket fines alone. Later, officers were accused of illegally receiving cash rewards for writing more tickets. An email from police chief Rodney Riddle in Windsor, Virginia was leaked in which he reminded officers to “write a minimum of two tickets per hour.” This was just after Caron Nazario, an Army lieutenant, was threatened and pepper sprayed by a Windsor police officer during a routine traffic stop over a license plate infraction. 

These revenue-producing routine traffic stops can often turn violent quickly. The New York Times identified 400 cases from the last five years where mostly Black unarmed civilians were killed by officers when they weren’t under pursuit for violent crimes, amounting to more than one per week. Officers were convicted in only five of these 400 cases. 

The aforementioned Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino Army lieutenant, was driving late at night on Dec. 5, 2020, when he saw flashing lights behind him. He waited to pull over to a well-lit gas station, not far from where he was driving. Bodycam footage showed Nazario had placed his cellphone on the dashboard of the car and positioned his empty hands outside of the window.

Two officers had pulled Nazario over for a license plate infraction, but Nazario’s lawsuit later showed that he had legal temporary plates for the car he had just bought. Officer Joe Gutierrez yelled at Nazario to get out of the car, and when Nazario said that he was afraid to, Gutierrez said, “You should be.” Seconds later, the officer sprayed Nazario with pepper spray though body cam footage showed no threat from Nazario that would warrant this kind of violence. Many other instances of violence and even death at the hands of officers during regular traffic stops have surfaced in recent years like the cases of Debra Hamil, Sandra Bland and Daunte Wright. 

Because everybody on the road violates traffic laws, that allows the police, who are also in charge of criminal law enforcement, to investigate crime without meeting any of the standards required for criminal investigation,” explains Sarah A. Seo, a law professor at Columbia University. Police can pull people over under the guise of a traffic violation or pure suspicion with few checks or procedures that can prevent situations from escalating. 

Police are trained to draw their weapons when they sense they are in danger, and this training often uses a worst-case-scenario approach to prepare officers for threats in the field. Officers are shown videos of police being shot within seconds of pulling someone over and are told stories of cases “gone wrong” which exaggerate the level of danger in traffic stops and can sometimes lead to officer-created jeopardy.

Officer-created jeopardy is when officers purposefully put themselves in vulnerable positions, like standing in front of a fleeing suspect or reaching into a car, and then fire their weapon claiming self-defense. This is their attempt to take control of the situation before it gets out of hand, but it actually unnecessarily escalates a nonviolent situation. 

Seo’s explanation also provides insight into how officers’ racial biases can influence violent encounters. Because there are fewer procedures for traffic stops, officers can pull over anyone they think is “up to no good,” and situations can easily escalate from there. An analysis of over 100 million traffic stops found that Black drivers are about 40% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers, a discrepancy which helped coin the term “Driving While Black.” It was also found that the racial disparity was smaller in traffic stops performed at night, further supporting the theory of racial bias as a factor for traffic stops. 

Several solutions have been proposed to combat the incredible number of traffic stops growing and becoming violent. Some argue that police officers should be removed from traffic responsibilities and fully replaced with automated systems like cameras. This would eliminate the possibility of officers’ racial biases influencing the escalation of a routine traffic stop. It has also been suggested that communities should come together to determine their own public safety solutions that would best fit their unique needs. This could be beneficial in making sure small towns and large cities are run on their individual needs rather than by a federal or state system. However, a lack of uniformity and a multitude of different public safety systems would be too complex for local governments to keep track of and adhere to appropriately. 

In February, a more concrete and direct solution to the excessiveness and possibility of violence in traffic stops was implemented in Berkeley, California. A reform package was implemented where low-level offenses like not wearing a seat belt were deemphasized, and the focus of traffic stops was shifted to major safety hazards and suspects in violent crimes. The procedures around traffic stops were also reevaluated and refocused in attempt to eliminate influence of racial biases. Other reforms included obtaining written consent for vehicle searches and providing clear evidence for charges, both of which have been shown to reduce racial disparities when implemented in other cities. Councilmember Terry Taplin said: “There is a chasm of mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement … repairing the mistrust is going to take a lot of work.” 

These kinds of reforms are not only concrete, direct and relatively simple to implement, but they are also universal. These reforms can be placed in all kinds of cities and communities. Police work should be refocused from low-level offenses to violent and major crimes and safety hazards to reduce racial disparities and appropriately use police resources to combat more important issues.

Ava Knight, FCRH ’25, is a neuroscience major from Seattle, Wash.