Is policing part of a Strong Town?

This is a response to the post on Strong Towns, titled “What’s the Role of the Police Department in Building Strong Towns?

I’m going to argue that a Strong Town does not depend upon or even much need policing. This strong statement comes from my experience in observing the interactions between law enforcement and citizens of color, citizens of low income. I’m a white male middle class person, so I have not directly experienced these issues, but I see them every day. Every day. In the city where I live (Sacramento), in the county where I live (Sacramento) to an even greater degree, and in most of the places I visit in the western US. There is data driven enforcement where I live, as follows: if they are black, they are guilty. If they are other people of color or poor, they are likely guilty. If they are black and poor and young and male, god help them, they will probably be dead no matter the nature of their perceived infraction. The district attorneys are part and parcel of the problem, as they will not prosecute law enforcement officers for violations of the law and of civil rights. The police unions are part and parcel, as they defend all officers, no matter how much of a bad apple they are.

I am not saying that all law enforcement profiles, in fact most probably do not. Not all officers are prone to excessive use of force, in fact most are probably not. However, the person of color has no way of knowing which kind of officer is approaching them. They have to assume they are going to be harassed, arrested for imaginary violations, and possibly murdered. Because that is what happens all too often. In fact, any instance is too often.

You might think I’m exaggerating. Let me refer to two cases in my area, both of which received national attention.

Nandi Cain was a young black male crossing the street legally. He was confronted by and severely beaten by a Sacramento City police officer for the imagined ‘crime’ of jaywalking. The officer did not lose his job and was not disciplined beyond administrative leave.

Joseph Mann was a middle aged black male killed by two Sacramento City police officers who first tried to run him over with their patrol car, and when they couldn’t hit him, pumped large number of bullets into him. What did he do? He was holding a pocket knife and behaving strangely. He had mental health issues. Neither officer was fired, neither was prosecuted, and it is not clear whether either were disciplined. Both eventually left the department. One later admitted in print that what they had done was probably murder, but the district attorney did not follow up. The interesting thing about this case is that other earlier arriving officers had largely defused the situation, the good officers, but the two later arriving ones assumed that the person was guilty of whatever and had to be killed, the bad officers. Data-driven enforcement, for sure.

This list could go on for pages, just in my region, and it could be a book nationally. I’m sure you have all heard of such incidents. The reason I picked these two is that they also relate to safety on the streets, which is a major component of a Strong Town. Nandi, the pedestrian, is the most obvious one. He could not safety cross the street in his own neighborhood, not because of traffic (though there are certainly issues with that as well), but because the police profiled and convicted him in the field. Joseph was killed while standing in the street. The officers used a deadly weapon, their patrol vehicle, to try to kill him, and only went to their other deadly weapons, their service revolvers, when that did not work.

The fact is, under our current policing paradigm, people of color, and particularly the young, black, poor male, cannot be safe. If any citizen is not safe, all citizens are not safe, and you cannot have a Strong Town.

The second major issue is the propensity of law enforcement to take the windshield perspective on all traffic collisions, and assume that the pedestrian or bicyclist was fully responsible for their injury or death. This shows up in the news media all the time. The officer on the scene will report that the bicyclist was not wearing a helmet, or that the pedestrian was wearing dark clothing. This is at the scene, before any investigation has even started. And that is the only thing the public ever hears. There is never a follow-up. And no one can get a copy of the investigation except the immediate family, if any, because friends and other family, and the public, is not considered an interested party.

Again, a specific example. I arrived on scene just moments after a student riding to school had been hit by a driver. His pack was thrown a considerable distance, and I made sure that it was not moved by anyone, as it gives an indication of the speed of impact. When I pointed it out to the officer, he went and picked it up and said it had no bearing on the crash. A neighbor who did not see the crash but had seen the student bicycling to school dozens of times, stated to me that she had never seen the student veer or do anything but ride in a completely safe and predicable manner. The officer would not take her statement since she did not witness the collision. How can anyone feel safe using the roadways if law enforcement sees only what it wants to see, not the facts? The student was transported to the hospital but did not have life-threatening injuries.

Traffic crash statistics, on which we base many of our decisions about traffic safety, investments in transportation systems, and how we value people who use the roadways and sidewalks, is suspect. Officers report that the pedestrian or bicyclist was at fault in most crashes, because that is what they want to believe. To believe otherwise would bring into question the built environment and the organizing principles of the city, and that is something most law enforcement personnel are not willing to consider.

Chuck Marohn has expressed concern about traffic enforcement, in More Thoughts on Ending Traffic StopsIt’s Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop, and many other posts and episodes. The Internet is full of posts questioning whether law enforcement can be a constructive partner in Vision Zero.

Robert Severance III of Cleburne TX is probably an honorable person. But I’d speculate that one or more persons on his force are not. As BWTrainer commented in response to the Strong Towns post, there is no mention of what the citizens think. A Strong Towns approach values all voices but emphasizes the voices of those who are not usually heard. That’s what I think.



Is law enforcement the answer?

From my post on Vision Zero and law enforcement, it might be assumed that I think increased enforcement is the answer. I’m not so sure. The problem is that law enforcement in general, and traffic enforcement specifically, has long been used as a tool by law enforcement to harass and oppress people of color, low income people, and the homeless. As a white male, or course, I don’t experience this, but I certainly observe it happening to others. I see it in Sacramento, I see it everywhere I travel. It is part of the purpose of law enforcement to maintain privilege for those in power. And it can, and does, also protect people. But the privilege function seems to me to overwhelm the protection function. It is certainly true that people of color and low income, and the homeless, do not trust law enforcement officers, because they have long been victims. Having a tail light out, which results in a stop, and frequently a search, and sometimes brutality, and sometimes even death, does not lead anyone including me to think that simple enforcement is a solution to traffic violence. And yet, ignoring the real threat of traffic violence, which affects people of color, low income, and homeless, far more than people of privilege, is not a solution either.

So, what to do?

Automated speed enforcement (ASE) is part of the answer. Cameras don’t racially profile, and assuming that there is no bias in sending tickets, does not oppress. The city has included a recommendation for ASE in the Vision Zero Action Plan: 3.4 Support state Automated Speed Enforcement legislation. Of course speeding is much better controlled by street design, but ASE can contribute to a reduction in the number and severity of collisions, particularly during the long period of time it will take to fix our unsafe streets.

I have a theory that most traffic violations, at least the ones likely to result in fatality and severe injury (KSI), are the result of what I call egregious violators, those who continuously and flagrantly violate the law. These are the ones that are not going 30 in. 25 mph zone, but going 50 in a 25. If ASE can catch these drivers, and eventually remove them from the road, I would expect a great decrease in KSI.

Another solution is to prevent law enforcement from using stops as a pretext, for the purpose of racial profiling. A stop should be just a stop, dealing with the violation and no more. That will take a change in law enforcement policies and attitudes, and probably changes in law that restrict officers in what they can do on traffic stops. When traffic stops shift from low riders to Escalade drivers, we will have made some progress.

Another solution, one implemented in some European countries, is that a traffic violations of safety significance results in a ticket whose amount depends on either the value of the vehicle or the income of the driver, and is not a flat rate. Standard violation fees, with court and processing costs added on, are a huge burden to many lower income people, while high income people hardly notice. If you don’t think that income matters, look at parking violations. Many higher income people routinely get parking tickets, every day, but it does not change their behavior, they see it just as part of the cost of getting the best parking spot and keeping it.

To implement Vision Zero in Sacramento, the community is going to have to talk about how law enforcement has long affected people of color, and continues to. We are going to have to come up with solutions that reduce and eliminate the effects of profiling based on race, income, and housing status, and the disparate impact of tickets on different income levels. I don’t have the answers, but I have faith that the WHOLE community does.

What do you think?