Alternatives to Police Traffic Safety Enforcement

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, the Seattle City Council is currently looking at dramatic reductions in police budgets, reallocating funding to alternative public safety efforts that do not rely so heavily on uniformed and armed police officers. Other cities across the state might also reevaluate how they do public safety. This has profound implications for implementing pedestrian safety efforts including Vision Zero and Safe Routes to Schools. Traditionally, both efforts have relied heavily on police enforcement. However, the nature of pedestrian safety makes them prime candidates for a different approach.

The Vision Zero Network will no longer recommend police enforcement as strategy to make streets safer. And the Safe Routes Partnership has dropped “Enforcement” from their “6 E’s Framework” for Safe Routes to Schools efforts. But many street safety advocates are still reckoning with what that might mean. What are the alternatives to police enforcement of traffic laws aimed at ensuring pedestrian safety?

One oft-mentioned alternative to armed traffic cops has a model in many cities already: unarmed parking enforcement officers. Their role could be expanded to enforce other traffic safety-related laws, thereby reducing the potential for escalation and violence. However, others call for significant reductions in the total number of uniformed police officers in our communities (whether armed or not) and shifting the resources previously spent on them to nonpolice-affiliated officials. In the traffic safety realm that could mean, for example, replacing police with mental health responders to attend to pedestrians in crisis. Or it could mean sending a city-employed mechanic to help drivers fix a brake light on their car when it burns out, rather than writing them a ticket.

Speeding has a huge impact on pedestrian safety. Police have traditionally been the ones issuing speeding tickets, but automated speed enforcement cameras are one possible alternative. This approach has several advantages: no police interaction, cameras reading license numbers do not racially profile, most ticketed drivers get only one ticket (they change their habits), vehicle speeds in the area go down, and revenues can be earmarked to pay for pedestrian safety improvements. Several cities in Washington state have effectively used automated speed cameras to reduce driver speeds in school speed zones. Automated cameras to ticket drivers running red lights and illegally using bus lanes are also allowed.

However, there are potential pitfalls with automated camera enforcement that must be acknowledged and guarded against. Currently Washington state law prohibits traffic enforcement cameras from being used for any other kind of surveillance or enforcement action. This is absolutely essential to maintain, so that a proven safety measure is not abused. It is also vital that automated enforcement is not disproportionately deployed in communities of color. Cities such as Philadelphia and Ferguson have been accused of disproportionately deploying cameras in Black and Indigenous People of Color neighborhoods in an effort to pad city revenues at these communities’ expense. It is imperative that Washington state adopt strong policies to prevent these sorts of abuses.

Another more all-encompassing approach to public safety is “participatory budgeting” whereby the community plays a direct role in determining resource allocation for public safety. In the process advocated by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, participatory budgeting is an annual cycle of feeding new ideas into the budget. The community develops an engagement plan to get residents brainstorming ideas for programs. These programs develop into proposals that the residents then vote to implement. Winning projects get funded.

Our friends at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways are embarking on a comprehensive review of alternatives to traditional approaches to pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement. They have created a task force composed of a diverse team of community stakeholders to evaluate Seattle’s current system of traffic enforcement and explore alternatives. We support this effort, and particularly applaud their stated emphasis on researching real-life examples from other communities.

Even if “police” funding is dramatically slashed, overall funding on public safety is likely to increase – particularly during any transition period when new approaches are developed and implemented. Even accounting for resources freed up by cutting police budgets, we are concerned that financially-strapped municipalities lack the financial resources necessary to properly and seamlessly implement changes. Therefore, we feel it is imperative for the federal government to provide significant funding for public safety reform at the local level.

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