On a chilly evening atop the roof of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, more than 50 DC residents came together to launch a campaign to overhaul how traffic laws are enforced in the city.
With the growing call to curb over-aggressive policing, especially against people of color, the “Cops Out of Traffic Coalition” — a partnership of Metro DC DSA, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), ACLU-DC, Sunrise DC and DC Justice Lab — called for enforcement of routine traffic infractions to be transferred from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and other armed police forces to the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT).
Speakers at the event called for minor infractions – such as burned-out lights, obstructed windows and illegal turns – to be enforced by unarmed DDOT safety personnel. This would minimize the chances of a routine stop resulting in harm to either the driver or officer.
According to materials distributed by the coalition, police often use traffic stops to search for guns or drugs but rarely find them: Stops lead to a search resulting in a seizure of a gun only 5 percent of the time, and drugs only 9 percent. Police often engage in racial profiling in traffic stops, with 754 percent of people targeted during stops in DC were Black, despite only making up 46 percent of the population. According to the coalition’s materials, “since 2015, over a quarter of the 135 Black men and women shot and killed by police began with a traffic stop.”
Patrice Sulton, executive director of the DC Justice Lab and a member of a commission that recently issued a report on DC police reform, said how the law is enforced shouldn’t “differ based on where I was driving, what I looked like and who I was with. . . It’s a weekly experience for some people in our city.”
Montgomery County resident Jake Thiel described his own experience of how police enforcement of traffic laws can get out of hand. During a routine stop a few years ago, he realized he didn’t have his driver’s license with him, and he wound up being hauled out of his car, thrown to the ground, tased and jailed for hours, where he was assaulted and kept in solitary confinement. It took two years of therapy before he was emotionally able to get back behind the wheel.
Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said there is growing support among DC elected officials for the coalition’s proposal. Nearly half of council members are supportive or at least open to the idea, he said, although Mayor Muriel Bowser has been noncommittal. Current DDOT leaders tended to be skeptical but would have to follow the lead of elected leadership, Lowery emphasized.
Under the coalition’s proposal, MPD would still stop drivers for violations that are immediate threats to public safety, such as speeding in a school zone or failing to stop for pedestrians. Nearly all other infractions would be enforced by DDOT, such as loud horns, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk in restricted areas, and faulty brakes.
The coalition noted that only a few other cities have begun to move toward unarmed enforcers of traffic safety laws. Berkeley, CA and Philadelphia recently adopted similar measures, while a few others have limited the role of police in traffic stops.
Lowery said that WABA’s interest comes in part from the police’s tendency to stop not only drivers but also cyclists, especially Black and Brown ones. Police sometimes stop him “just to see if it’s my bike,” he said. He saw the coalition proposal as part of the overall effort to achieve a “sustainable, safe transportation system for everybody” — drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike — “including safe from police.” Funds spent by police on enforcement could be better utilized on improved transportation infrastructure such as sidewalks, streetscape improvements and bike lanes.
The next steps will involve moving the Council from soft support to actual legislation, the speakers noted. Those interested in getting involved can visit the coalition’s website.