CAVs and the Traffic Stop

The traffic stop has long been a primary point of interaction between police and the community. As consent Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations into local police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago made clear in recent years, they are also a moment that is open to large-scale abuse. The rise of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) will fundamentally alter, and perhaps dramatically reduce the occurrence of, this common police tactic. In order to avoid replicating the problematic aspects of traffic stops, communities need to grapple with the ways in which their current system has failed, and how policing should look in the future.

Local police departments in at least some parts of the country have been found to use routine traffic stops as a fundraising tool for the city. Due to either implicit or explicit bias, such policies frequently have an outsized impact on minority members of the community. DOJs investigation of the Ferguson Police Department unearthed a city government primarily concerned with the use of traffic stops to “fill the revenue pipeline.” Particularly in light of decreased sales tax revenue, city officials saw the need to increase traffic citations as “not an insignificant issue.” This attitude filtered down from the City Council and Financial Director to line officers, who were regularly reminded of the need to increase “traffic productivity.” In Ferguson, demand that the police department be a revenue generation machine contributed to racial bias in the city’s criminal justice system. African American drivers were the subjects of 85% of the traffic stops, despite constituting only 67% of the population. Among those stopped, 11% of black drivers were searched, compared to only 5% of white drivers. While the Ferguson report throws the twin problems of racialized policing and use of the police for revenue generation into stark relief, the city is far from alone. The investigations in Baltimore and Chicago found similar abuses. A review of academic literature by researchers at Princeton found that “Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by the police, convicted of a crime, and . . . issued a lengthy prison sentence” than similarly situated whites.

These findings highlight the centrality of the traffic stop to modern policing. Traffic stops not only lead directly to citations – for speeding, missing stop signs, and the like – but also to searches of individuals and vehicles that may lead to more serious crimes for things like possession of drugs or weapons. The importance of traffic stops has been spurred on by a Supreme Court that has given its blessing to pretextual stops, in which an officer can stop a car as long as there is a valid reason, regardless of their actual reason. Widespread use of CAVs, however, could seriously cut down on pretextual stops. If a CAV is programmed to travel no faster than the speed limit, to always signal turns, and to never run a red light after all, the number of available pretexts is significantly reduced. While many commentators have been hesitant to think that this shift will lead to large-scale shifts in police tactics or a significant reduction in abuses, they have at least highlighted that possibility.

While CAVs and other new technology may lead to a shift in police tactics, they alone will not eliminate, and may not even reduce, biased policing. Unless addressed through changes to underlying structures of taxation or spending, the financial imperative to turn the police force into a revenue generator will continue to drive over-policing of minor violations. Without addressing implicit bias, this over-policing will continue to disproportionately target minority communities. The CAV era may channel these pressures in new directions. But cities that wish to address the ongoing challenge of racially biased policing must initiate structural changes, rather than merely hope that technology will save them.