There’s no shortage of media reports about the police these days, but two recently published pieces have advanced figures and opinions that warrant response by law enforcement professionals.
One calls for abandoning traffic stops as a public relations and safety move, an idea that could find fertile ground in today’s anti-cop atmosphere. The other looks at the alarming fruits of demonizing and demoralizing officers.
We’re interested in YOUR thoughts, opinions, observations. What are your reactions to these provocative points of view? Send us your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and in a future edition of Force Science News, we’ll share a representative sampling of what experienced officers have to say.
1. Law professor: Eliminate traffic stops, win friends, be safer
A California law professor has a suggestion he says would dramatically improve police-public relations and increase safety for officers. Eliminate traffic stops.
Prof. Christopher Kutz of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program at the University of California-Berkeley detailed his proposal recently in an op ed essay for the Chicago Tribune’s Tribune Content Agency, a syndication service for news outlets and websites. Kutz, who holds a law degree from Yale as well as a PhD, focuses his professional efforts on “moral, political, and legal philosophy” issues.
In his Tribune piece, he cites a familiar series of recent incidents in which black drivers have ended up dead during or after officers pulled them over for relatively trivial violations, including a broken tail light, a missing license plate, and an improper lane change.
These motorists, Kutz argues, “should never have been stopped by police at all. Nor should the vast majority of Americans pulled over in our national ritual of the traffic stop.”
Just like “our apparent tolerance of rampage shootings [and] our system of mass incarceration,” law enforcement’s devotion to traffic stops puts the US “out of step” with other developed nations, Kutz claims.
American drivers are stopped for traffic violations “at a rate of about 9,900 per 100,000 citizens,” Kutz writes, citing a DOJ survey. “By contrast, government reports in England and Wales show traffic stops occur at a rate of only about 2,200 per 100,000”; in France, 2,760 per 100,000; in Spain, “about 3,000 per 100,000.”
Yet according to the World Health Organization, these countries, “which have aggressive driving cultures, have 40 percent to 60 percent of the US fatal accident rate, despite traffic stops being made 20 percent to 30 percent as often.”
Minor traffic violations, Kutz asserts, “pose no significant immediate threat” to anyone on the road. “On the other hand, every stop brings a substantial danger to the law enforcement officer: Car and motorcycle accidents and being struck by vehicles are a leading cause of death in the line of duty. Stops also produce a significant risk of escalation and confrontation, with tragic outcomes…. So no legitimate concern with road safety compels us to continue with the traffic stop.”
He proposes a test. “Any municipal police chief can simply undertake a quiet, and easily reversible, experiment: Reserve the traffic stop for objectively and imminently dangerous road behaviors, and observe the effects on crime rates and traffic accidents.
“Local, state, and federal government also could encourage the use of red-light and speed cameras,” as the European countries do to enforce speed laws. These devices, automatically generating citations, “would surely issue as many or more tickets as traffic patrol officers do”–without, Kutz adds, racial bias. “No camera has ever Tased or shot an unarmed driver,” he notes.
“Any purported benefit” from stops for minor violations–“for example, the slim chance of apprehending wanted criminals”–has to be “set off against the resentment they engender, Kutz says.
With minor violations off their watch list, “police could concentrate their efforts on serious crime and immediate…genuinely dangerous driving behavior…while traffic engineers [seek] alternative ways to improve roads safety.”
Thus, he concludes, could “all citizens enjoy more freedom from overzealous and unproductive policing.”
2. Think tanker: Payoff from anti-police attitude is societal havoc
“Those who make enemies of the police,” the saying goes, “had better make friends with the criminals.”
How’s that working out for urban America these days?
Not so hot, reports journalist and commentator Heather MacDonald in an article titled “Welcome to Post-Ferguson Policing” in the online version of the conservative magazine National Review. MacDonald is a fellow at the think tank Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a graduate of Stanford University law school, and author of the book Are Cops Racist? (No, is her conclusion).
She begins her article by recounting the notorious incident in Alabama recently where a detective was beaten unconscious during a traffic stop “because the officer did not want to be pilloried in the media as a racist for using force against a black man.” A sergeant on his department is quoted: Cops are “walking on eggshells because of how they’re scrutinized” these days.
“This reluctance to act,” MacDonald writes, “is affecting police departments across the country, as virtually every tool in an officer’s tool chest–from traffic stops to public-order maintenance–is vilified as racist.”
She then looses a shotgun spray of disturbing statistics showing the impact on crime and crime-fighting:
- Following anti-police riots and indictments of cops over a black man’s death in Baltimore, arrests dropped 60 percent in one month [last May], compared with the previous year.
- “In New York City,” she states, “criminal summonses, a powerful gauge of proactive enforcement, were down 24 percent through July….”
- “In the LAPD’s Central Division, home to the chaotic, squalid Skid Row, arrests are down 13 percent, while violent crime is up 57 percent… [W]hen officers stay engaged, they often confront hostile, unruly crowds and resistance from suspects.” Overall, the city’s violent crime has risen by 10 percent as of early August.
- “Milwaukee has seen a 118 percent rise in homicides; Minneapolis and St. Louis, close to 50 percent, and Baltimore 60 percent.” Other alarming spikes are reported in Dallas, Houston, and Chicago. “In 35 big US cities,” according to a survey by the Major City Chiefs Assn., “homicides are up 19 percent this year on average….”
- “Sixty-two percent of surveyed cities reported increases in non-fatal shootings as well…. [T]he country is seeing the biggest violent-crime spike in 20 years.”
MacDonald notes: “If the Black Lives Matter movement were correct that law enforcement is a scourge on the black community, [the] unraveling of proactive policing should be an enormous benefit to black well-being.”
But the truth is, “The overwhelming majority of shooting and homicide victims have been black, as are their assailants…. [W]hen the police back off, it is residents of poor inner-city neighborhoods who pay, too often with their lives….”
MacDonald concludes: “There are signs that law and order, and the moral support for such order, are slowly breaking down. Few leaders have the courage to speak honestly about the rising violence….”
Incidents in which crowds turn on officers attempting to enforce laws get scant attention in the media, she asserts. She cites a “mini-riot [that] broke out when police arrived at the scene of a drive-by shooting in Cincinnati.”
The drive-by assailants had shot a four-year-old girl in the head, but hostile bystanders shouted profanities against the cops, who were trying to prevent a retaliatory shooting by arresting people on outstanding warrants. “The press,” MacDonald alleges, “was assiduously silent about the anti-police chaos.”
Such incidents and the alarming statistical toll of “anarchy” in the streets, she predicts, “will probably multiply as the media continue to amplify the activists’ poisonous slander against the nation’s police forces.”