Traffic Stops Must Balance Safety and Community Concerns

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To the Editor:

When cops stop cars for minor violations such as a license plate not being illuminated, these encounters are commonly referred to as pretextual stops. Although pretextual stops are legal, data suggest they have disparate outcomes regarding who is stopped and who is searched.

Because of these disparate outcomes, some jurisdictions modified their use of pretextual stops. In 2013, Fayetteville, NC directed its officers to stop enforcing minor traffic offenses. Instead, they focused on moving violations. Because of the policy shift, between 2013 – 2016, the number of minor traffic stops and vehicle searches declined.

Interestingly, during that same period, traffic stops based on a moving violations rose from 13,000 to 46,000. Simultaneously, traffic fatalities, citizen complaints, and officer injuries decreased.  Policy changes like this are occurring nationwide. For example, in Los Angles, CA, when officers use a pretextual stop they must justify their reasoning.

Given the national critique of pretextual stops it’s no surprise, Connecticut is seeking to restrict officers’ discretion regarding traffic stops. Regardless of anyone’s opinion about pretext stops, there is no denying that most vehicle collisions are likely caused by human error not equipment violations. Therefore, directing cops to focus on moving violations isn’t counterproductive.

As lawmakers explore additional reforms, they must collaborate with practitioners to minimize unintended consequences. Although a license plate not being illuminated is not a hazard; a cop approaching a car with heavily tinted windows is. Therefore, reforms must balance officers’ safety and community concerns.

Dr. James T. Scott
New Haven, CT

Scott is a retired State Police sergeant and assistant professor at Albertus Magnus College