By The Numbers: Policing for Safety or Traffic Policing as Pretext?

Ellen Partridge is the Senior Advisor, Mobility Innovation at Equiticity as well as the Senior Policy Advisor at the Shared-Use Mobility Center.

“Half of all citizen-police interactions, more than 40% of all drug arrests, and over 30% of police shootings in the context of traffic stops”1Crane, Daniel A. “The Future of Law and Mobility.” J.L. & Mobility 1, no. 1 (2018): 101-11.

For any of us, the sight of those flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror can give a moment of trepidation and a churning in the stomach. It is not surprising that in a car-centric society, most “pathological” interactions with the police happen in the context of a traffic stop, with a car as the main environment for that interaction. Phrases such as “get out of the car,” “put your hands on the wheel,” “let me know if you have a gun in your glovebox,” have become procedural – and normalized – phrases related to this interaction with the police.

But those stops are not the same for everybody, either in the extreme stress in the moment or in the likelihood of escalation and devastating consequences. Or in their prevalence among Black and Brown populations. Anyone who thinks that police enforcement of traffic rules is fair and equitable, leads to greater safety, or helps with criminal investigations, must examine the report released this month by Business and Professional People in the Public Interest (BPI) and the Free2Move Coalition (“Report”). The investigation is an in-depth analysis of more than four million reported traffic stops in Chicago over a period of 18 years, with an emphasis on 2015-2021. This is what it shows:

  1. In 2021, 63% of traffic stops in Chicago were of Black people, while making up 29% of the total population in the city.
  2. Black and Latinx drivers are even more likely to be stopped in predominantly white areas of the city. For example, the study notes that “In North Side police districts encompassing neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, Logan Square, Portage Park, and O’Hare, which contain some of the lowest percentages of Black residents across the city, Black drivers were 6-10 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers.” 
  3. Using an analytic technique called “Veil of Darkness,” which looks at whether racial disparities change at night when it is more difficult to discern race, the BPI/F2M Report shows that disparities in traffic stops decrease after dark when police officers are likely less able to see a driver’s race.
  4. And perhaps most powerful of all, traffic stops increased almost sevenfold in a period of five years from 2015 to 2019, with about 86,000 stops in 2015 spiking to nearly 600,000 in 2019. 

Why was that? In 2015, after a consent decree forced the Chicago Police Department to cease “stop and frisk” stops of pedestrians, it turned instead to traffic stops. With impunity, the Report notes, “police officers can follow any motorist until they violate a traffic law—and all drivers do sooner or later—and then use that traffic infraction to stop the vehicle and ‘fish’ for signs of criminal activity. Using this loophole, officers can investigate civilians without any indication that they have engaged in, are engaged in, or are about to engage in a criminal act. This practice is known as making a ‘pretextual stop.’”2BPI Report at page 8.

There is far more in this Report, with evidence that only 4% of traffic stops result in a traffic citation, and that traffic stops do not aid either greater safety or greater security. Communities truly focused on safety and security should focus on road design, especially in disinvested areas. Transportation for America noted, for example, that: “A 2021 study found that three-quarters of the most-dangerous roads for pedestrians in the United States run through low-income neighborhoods, which are themselves disproportionately likely to be communities of color.” Civic participation is also harmed by negative encounters with police, which make people less likely to participate in civil society and create a detrimental effect on democracy. 

The BPI Report authors and the Free2Move Coalition promise a future installment with more details about potential solutions. Additional resources can be found at

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