FAYETTEVILLE — Before dawn one morning in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a black woman in her late 60s was pulled over by a police officer. The officer said she’d run a stop sign.
She denied the charge. She was just trying to get to her Bible studies class, she told him. He ran her license and concluded the stop with a warning. The incident disturbed her nevertheless. While he did not ticket her, the officer questioned her reason for being out that morning — it was too early for Bible study groups, he said sarcastically.
This did not sit well with her Bible study group that day in 2013, especially one of its newer attendees, whose husband was the new Fayetteville police chief. She relayed the incident.
Harold Medlock was exasperated. Apparently one of his officers had been randomly stopping people in their neighborhoods.
It was precisely the kind of policing he was there to change. “It never occurred to me that I would have a cop out there doing everything wrong, from the way you treat somebody to the basic protocols and procedures for traffic stop,” he said.
Medlock had arrived in Fayetteville already convinced that police focus regarding motor vehicles should be on speeding, stop sign/light violations, DWI and reckless driving — moving violations of immediate concern to public safety.
Stopping drivers for nonmoving violations such as equipment failures or expired registration ought to be minimized or avoided altogether, he told his department.
It wasn’t what his officers wanted to hear. But they had little room to argue. Less than two months earlier a Fayetteville officer had shot a man to death after an investigative traffic stop.
This is where they meet
Across the country police pull over 50,000 drivers on a typical day, more than 20 million motorists a year. It makes the traffic stop the most common police-citizen interaction in the country.
Numerous studies have shown that black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops, and once stopped are more likely to have their cars searched during the stop.
Police and activists agree that these stops are fraught with danger for both citizens and police. As a cop, Medlock knew there was a complicated way to fix this, and a simple one. He went with the simple one: get cops out of the habit of pulling over people unless they needed to do so to protect the safety of others on the road.
But would it work? Could it protect the rights of people to drive free of the fear of being profiled, but also keep the streets safe from bad drivers and violent crime?
When a traffic stop has nothing to do with traffic
Medlock isn’t the only person to see things this way, even in a somewhat conservative, “law and order” state.
In North Carolina, police make about a million traffic stops a year. Half of those, according to Frank Baumgartner, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are not safety-related stops.
He thinks stopping a driver because of a broken taillight or equipment violation does little for safety. “And it comes with a cost in terms of public trust and confidence in the police.”
Baumgartner, coauthor of “Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race,” says another concern is the use of traffic stops as a pretext for further investigations.
“The difficulty people are having is that a traffic stop is not really a traffic stop. It’s an opportunity for the police to do an informal criminal investigation,” he said. An analysis by Baumgartner and his colleagues shows that out of 20 million traffic stops in the state, only 2% led to arrests.
With those percentages, experts suggest, police might as well be fishing.
But it’s their pond to fish. Across a span of 100 years, the growth of citizen automobility brought with it an unwelcome passenger: a constantly expanding pile of thousands of local, state and federal laws, all focused on policing people in their vehicles, according to Sarah Seo.
She is a law professor at Iowa State University and the author of “Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.”
In the process, Seo said, “Public safety and traffic law enforcement merged with criminal investigations. And that was the basis for expanding the police’s discretionary power.”
The modern symbol of American freedom, Seo notes, is also the space in which Americans are most regulated by laws and subject to ever more intrusive discretionary policing.
In a world where even Supreme Court justices admit that practically anyone could be pulled over for a perceived technical violation of motor vehicle law, some police went from mostly investigating reported crimes to seeing a potential criminal behind every steering wheel.
Not surprisingly, data from police departments shows that those pulled over in discretionary traffic stops tend to be disproportionately black.
When non-moving violation stops went down, so did vehicle searches of black drivers
In Fayetteville from 2013 to 2016, the effects of Medlock’s enforcement directions were easily measurable: stops for non-moving violations went way down; investigative stops went to zero all four years; and stops for speeding increased dramatically.
The strategy seemed to take the pressure off black drivers in the area: The number of black drivers searched from 2013 to 2016 declined by nearly 50% compared to the previous four years, according to analysis of state data.
In the preceding four years, 5,980 black drivers had been searched. That number went down to 3,059 during Medlock’s four years as chief.
Meanwhile, focused traffic enforcement for moving violations such as speed or stop/red light violations skyrocketed from 13,000 a year to 46,000 a year in four years.
The policing had its effect on its main target: traffic fatalities went down, proving wrong the predictions of critics that traffic safety would decline.
Medlock was excited when he saw what other key numbers decreased. “Uses of force went down, injuries to citizens and officers went down, and complaints against officers went down.”
Black drivers in America have long complained about how often they get stopped for petty traffic or equipment violations — failure to signal, broken license plate light, or other technical violations all which have little to do with traffic safety. Baumgartner says focusing enforcement efforts on actual safety-related violations will build trust between the police and residents.
“It will have a big impact on poor people. It will have big impact on people who drive older cars, and it will have a very big impact on black and Hispanic drivers, because if they knew that they were only going to get pulled over for running through a stop sign or excessive speeding, they will feel much more confident that they could be treated fairly by their police,” he added.
Another of the 100 voices interviewed for the Future of Police project, Mike Aikens of Anderson, South Carolina, says as a black man he feels uncomfortable when he’s driving and sees a police vehicle behind him.
And he’s a cop.
There’s a reason Aikens had to have “the talk” with his two sons about how to behave if they are ever pulled over by police. “I’d be a liar if I said that I’m not worried when I am off duty and in my plain clothes and a cop gets behind me. What if they don’t know me? What will happen?”
The encouraging numbers would not have stopped him from having that talk with his sons. “Does taking away certain stops take away worry? No. Because you never know for sure what is going to happen.”
The numbers notwithstanding, police still have motivation to make discretionary stops
James McCabe says police officers are under pressure to show their value.
The criminal justice professor at Sacred Heart University and a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department says a traditional way to do that is to enforce traffic rules when not answering calls.
McCabe says in practically any police department, “You’ll see an overwhelming concentration of self-initiated traffic stops by the police.”
Additional patrol time freed because of a reduction in traffic stops could be spent addressing crime trends and working with the community, he said.
In small cities and rural counties which comprise the territory of most police departments and sheriff’s offices, that’s more time than most think.
Saving lives or sewing distrust? The story of 338,000 traffic stops
Baumgartner said police agencies should de-emphasize all but three or four of the traffic laws in North Carolina — speeding, DWI, running stop signs or lights, other “unsafe movement.”
Drilling down to a specific region, it becomes apparent how such a change could impact policing.
The 11 law enforcement agencies around the North Carolina cities of Burlington, Asheboro and Lexington, and their surrounding counties provide a representative sample of many areas in America outside of big cities. It’s a mix of urban and rural, town and gown, and agriculture and industry. And a lot of people driving to and from work on roads including 25 mph city streets, long rural two-lane roads and 70 mph state highways.
From 2010-2019, those agencies made about 526,000 traffic stops, according to data provided to the state by police.
f those stops, only 187,300 stops were for speeding, DWI, stop sign or stoplight violations.
If police followed a plan similar to Medlock and Baumgartner’s ideas, nearly 65% of those stops — over 338,000 traffic stops — would never have happened.
Assuming 15 minutes of officer time for each stop (some studies estimate closer to 20 minutes), that’s almost 85,000 officer hours.
From the citizen’s point of view that’s 85,000 hours that they would not have spent on the side of a highway or road in the last 10 years.
Put another way, that means that a driver was pulled over and sitting on the side of the road for almost every minute of the ten-year period under discussion, all for non-moving potential violations.
What can officers do if they are not doing traffic enforcement?
Early in his term as police chief, Medlock was on his way to a city council meeting when a call came in through the dispatch: Cops were fighting with rowdy teens, the caller said. The chief turned around and headed to the scene.
When he arrived he saw two of his officers playing basketball with the neighborhood kids. There was no fight. Someone who didn’t want the kids playing basketball in the street called it in as a fight.
Medlock engaged some other neighborhood kids. They talked about school and yearbooks, he said. Other officers from the department joined in, too. This was impromptu community policing at work, he said.
It’s also one of his most memorable moments.
This is what police officers would be doing if they are not conducting traffic enforcement. “We shouldn’t be in our cars waiting for that next 911 call. We should be engaged with the community. We should be addressing problems with the community that are important to that particular neighborhood.”
He said community policing builds trust with the people. “You gain a tremendous amount first of relationship-building and trust. And when you have trusted people, they’re going to share information with you.”
Medlock knows no approach is perfect or foolproof. “But at the end of the day, you’re not harassing people, you’re not making them mad, and you’re not fishing,” he said.