By Conor Friedersdorf
I’m suggesting a change in protocol: A police officer who sees a car with a broken taillight, or a malfunctioning blinker, should pull it over, park behind it, photograph the license plate, and issue a “fix it” ticket to the registered owner of the vehicle without ever approaching a window or interacting with anyone on the roadside.
Some traffic stops are unavoidable. Police officers need to interact with drunk-driving suspects to determine their blood alcohol level. They need to interact with a person driving a car reported stolen to recover the property and arrest the thief. But broken taillights and similar matters can be addressed without any human contact. And minimizing interactions between police and motorists is a good thing.
On the roadside, approaching people sitting in their own car, many cops fear for their safety. In their vehicles, many motorists, particularly black and Hispanic motorists, fear that they’re going to be met with a racist or panicked police officer. These interactions are hugely stressful for both sides even when they end without incident. And rarely, but far too often, these roadside stops end in needless injury or death.
To what end?
So that cops making a stop for a broken taillight can occasionally discover an outstanding warrant or an expired registration or narcotics in a vehicle? The benefits of these incidental discoveries are not worth the costs, in stress and incidents gone wrong, especially when one adds opportunity costs to the calculus: The more time police officers spend on roadside stops for “fix-it” tickets, the less time they’re engaged in patrolling, investigating, or responding to more serious crimes.
Vehicle code stops also serve, in many jurisdictions, to enable policing that disproportionately burdens the marginalized, both because the discretion associated with such stops can enable racial profiling and because poor people are most likely to have older vehicles in need of minor repairs that they can’t afford to make.