Police Are Stopping Fewer Drivers — and It’s Increasing Safety

New data shows that cities across the country are benefiting from reducing non-safety-related traffic stops.
Sam Raim Senior Editor
Jan 11, 2024

Cynthia Harrison wasted little time. Not long after taking office in 2022 as a city council member in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she began working on a policy to limit non-safety-related traffic stops, like similar ones passed in Virginia and Philadelphia in recent years. As both a lifelong resident and a criminal legal reform advocate, she knew that many people in Ann Arbor—particularly Black residents—had negative experiences with the police and traffic stops, and that this policy could eliminate unnecessary contact with law enforcement. However, she told Vera, “It was very important to make sure that residents understood that this was not going to increase crime or dangerous traffic violations.” That meant pointing to the “strong evidence that it would lower both, because it would free our police officers to solve crime or go after individuals driving dangerously and committing primary traffic violations, like running red lights.”

After months of work with her fellow lawmakers, community members, and stakeholders—including the police chief, the city’s attorney, and the transportation commission—her bill was fortuitously ready by Juneteenth 2023. Harrison introduced the law on June 20, and it passed unanimously just weeks later on July 6, the seventh anniversary of the police killing of Philando Castile.

Despite stiff opposition—particularly from law enforcement, who often argue that such policies constrain their ability to enforce public safety—the movement to change approaches to traffic safety in the United States continued to build momentum in 2023. Ann Arbor’s policy followed that of Memphis, Tennessee, which passed its Driving Equality Act last April. Advocates in Memphis had been pushing for such a policy for years—with Decarcerate Memphis presenting to the city council on pretextual stops in December 2022—but the need became particularly obvious in the wake of Tyre Nichols’s murder a month later. By the end of the year, Shaker Heights, Ohio, would become the third jurisdiction to pass this kind of legislative policy, aided by 17-year-old activist Ethan Khorana.

Additionally, 2023 saw some state-level progress in the form of an Illinois law to ban traffic stops for hanging items (like air fresheners) from rearview mirrors and a California law requiring police to inform someone of the reason for a traffic stop after pulling them over.

New evidence for the benefits of limiting non-safety-related stops

The last few years have seen a growing movement to end police stops for traffic infractions that do not pose an immediate safety concern, like expired tags, a missing headlight, or an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror. Report after report finds significant, harmful racial disparities in traffic stops in cities and states around the country—along with high traffic fatalities nationwide—and researchers continue to validate the benefits of ending non-safety-related traffic stops.

The first known experiment with abandoning non-safety-related stops occurred in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2013. The city’s then-Police Chief Harold Medlock theorized that his department could improve public safety, road safety, and community relations if it spent more time on serious safety matters (including dangerous driving) and less time enforcing low-level traffic infractions, which are often used as an excuse to ineffectively search cars for contraband like guns and drugs. In 2020, researchers from the University of North Carolina looked at Medlock’s Fayetteville policy and found impressive results: decreased racial disparities in traffic enforcement, fewer car crashes and traffic injuries/fatalities, and little impact on non-traffic crime.

In 2023, the evidence continued to build. In Ramsey County, Minnesota, researchers from the Justice Innovation Lab studied the effects of a policy enacted by County Attorney John Choi (in partnership with Vera's Reshaping Prosecution initiative) to not prosecute charges stemming from non-safety-related traffic stops, along with police department policies to cease making such stops. In their report and working paper, researchers found, once again, that curbing non-safety-related stops reduced racial disparities in stops and searches with no negative impact on traffic safety or crime. In particular, Black drivers, who were stopped and searched more often than other groups, experienced a drastic reduction in stops for equipment violations and searches, though racial disparities still persist.

Meanwhile, new data from Philadelphia, where the Driving Equality Ordinance went into effect in 2022, further illuminates the impact of these laws. First, more traffic stops resulted in the recovery of a gun in 2022, the year after the law went into effect, than in 2019, despite Philadelphia police making 70 percent fewer stops between those two time points. While there are too many variables to exclusively credit the law for this change, the results are consistent with the notion that eliminating these low-level stops forces police to be more intentional with their searches and contradict oft-repeated claims that such stops are necessary to get guns off the street. New data also shows that, while racial disparities persisted, traffic stops of the type targeted by the ordinance involving Black drivers were down 54 percent in the law’s first year. Finally, data provided by the Defender Association of Philadelphia reveals that, before the bill, the most common reason for a traffic stop in the city were lighting violations, like a missing headlight or taillight. Now, it’s running a red light—indicating that traffic enforcement is becoming increasingly focused on stopping dangerous driving. However, stops for illegal window tints and expired registrations have gone up considerably in Philadelphia, meriting further investigation into whether police have shifted to using these infractions as pretextual stops.

Law enforcement can also benefit from these policies

This promising new evidence should be encouraging to any jurisdiction looking to improve racial disparities in traffic enforcement or road safety in general. And many law enforcement personnel who have worked in departments that ended enforcement of non-safety-related infractions agree.

When asked how his officers felt about the change, St. Paul, Minnesota, Police Chief Axel Henry was unequivocal: “They support it. They like it. In fact, most of our officers don’t like writing tickets for things they’d rather see you spend your money getting fixed. They don’t want to be kind of the bully in the neighborhood.”

Anthony Kelly, who served as assistant chief to Harold Medlock in Fayetteville, is even more effusive. In an interview with Vera, he described the change as “completely transformational” to the way he and his colleagues did their jobs.

Before Medlock directed his officers to stop making non-safety-related stops, Fayetteville’s police department knew from the data that they were stopping Black, Indigenous, and other drivers of color disproportionately, particularly for low-level infractions (as documented in the book Suspect Citizens). But they didn’t need the data to tell them they had a problem. Community relations were “pretty bad off,” said Kelly.

When Medlock initially brought the policy to his department, Kelly was willing to try anything to improve their standing within the community, but he says that many of his colleagues were “skeptical at ‘not being the police,’” and there was pushback internally. However, when the relationship between the police and the community started to change, attitudes within the department changed along with it. The police “gained legitimacy” in the eyes of the community by only stopping people for moving violations—and, for concerns that didn’t pose immediate safety risks, like expired tags, only issuing a friendly reminder. He says that officers felt more appreciated by the community and proud to wear their uniforms in public again.

To Kelly, the change was “night and day, especially for the relationship with the community.” He feels that the public was subsequently more willing to help assist law enforcement with other crime issues, contributing, he believes, to the city’s improved public safety. He says that community members began thanking police officers for their service and that the department was overwhelmed with invitations to community events. “Everybody now wanted to be associated with the Fayetteville Police Department,” he explains.

Importantly, he also reports that the department’s complaints, use of force, and injuries to officers decreased. Traffic stops were no longer the contentious interactions they once were. Kelly also does not believe that losing the ability to use non-safety-related stops to conduct searches affected his department’s ability to enforce public safety: “It made it easier, in fact,” he said, because the success rate of those searches was so low (he calls them “fishing expeditions”).

Unfortunately, Fayetteville reversed Medlock’s policy after his retirement in 2016. Today, racial disparities in the police department’s traffic enforcement have fully rebounded—and even far surpass pre-2013 levels. But thanks to the research on Fayetteville’s policy and the willingness of those like Kelly and Medlock to testify about its benefits, their experiment continues to play a key role in persuading other districts to try similar policies, even just up the highway in nearby Chapel Hill.

New policies in 2024

As the year begins and many states’ legislative sessions start up again, lawmakers and advocates are preparing to move bills ahead in Washington, California, and Connecticut that would limit non-safety-related traffic stops, while campaigns are also gaining momentum in cities like Chicago. Although these measures all face resistance, Anthony Kelly has a message for anyone considering it: “What do you have to lose?”