Police enforcement of traffic laws is not an effective way to make our streets safer for everyone. In fact, traffic enforcement records clearly show how it disproportionately puts Black communities at risk
Multiple BikePGH staff members collectively crafted this statement.
Police enforcement is no longer part of BikePGH’s strategy for safer streets. Armed police enforcement of traffic laws does not make our streets safe for all.
For years, bicycle and pedestrian advocates across the country have used the League of American Bicyclists’ “Five E (plus one)” framework to outline the essential elements toward safe streets. These Five (plus one) elements include: Education, Equity, Engineering, Evaluation and Planning, Encouragement, and of course, Enforcement.
Enforcement has been promoted as a way to make sure road users follow traffic laws. We’ve included enforcement in some of our messaging and advocacy efforts because we believed it made our streets safer.
We were wrong.
We’ve learned that enforcement is not an effective strategy to improve roadway safety when people of color and people with disabilities are disproportionately targets of the police. We cannot in good conscience promote enforcement as a solution to street safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Inspired by the work of fellow safe streets advocates, notably, the Untokening, who have developed and amplified this message, Our Streets MPLS (whose 2019 statement was all too prescient in Minneapolis), and most recently, the Safe Routes Partnership and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, we are breaking from the national framework, and joining these organizations by no longer promoting police enforcement programs and partnerships as an essential element toward safe streets for all.
According to a 2018 Department of Justice Report, “being a driver in a traffic stop was the most common form of police-initiated contact.” Once pulled over, it is entirely up to the officer on what to do next, and will no doubt draw out inherent biases on whether they decide to issue a citation, a warning, a search of their vehicle, an arrest, or worse. For centuries, activists have been advocating for change to this system and our recognition of these injustices is past due.
Policing has undeniably intensified racial disparities in Pittsburgh and around the country. Police bias towards Black and Brown people is shown clearly in Pittsburgh’s traffic enforcement records (see below). As we have seen too many times, these interactions have escalated, leaving too many Black Americans stuck in the criminal justice system or dead.
Pittsburgh’s Traffic Enforcement Record
We got to work educating ourselves on the history of policing in Pittsburgh by looking into the City of Pittsburgh’s own traffic enforcement record, and it has become obvious that encouraging enforcement does more harm than good, and amplifies racial disparities in Pittsburgh. Digging into the available data (2011-2019) that is published in the City’s Police Annual Reports, we came across some startling statistics.
As shown by the chart above, it is clear that Black Pittsburghers are subjected to traffic stops at a far higher rate than their percentage of the city population (even greater when you consider Allegheny County, who is roughly 79% white, 13% Black), while the percentage of traffic stops for white Pittsburghers sits well below that of the white population.
Sadly, these figures have only gotten worse since 2011, even as the population of Black Pittsburghers has decreased. In 2017, for instance, police pulled over more Black Pittsburghers than white Pittsburghers, despite white residents outnumbering Black residents nearly three to one. Last year, while Black residents comprised about a quarter of Pittsburgh’s population, they also comprised 44% of all drivers pulled over by police in Pittsburgh.
Looking at the outcomes of the traffic stops, the results are also frightening. 2011 through 2015 were the last years that the City publicly reported on what happens after someone is pulled over. Between these years, our analysis shows that after a traffic stop, police cited and warned Black and white drivers at equal rates. However, of all of those who were pulled over, 5.9% of Black Pittsburghers ended up arrested, compared to only 2.9% of white Pittsburghers – clearly showing the racial disparities.
Building Safe Streets
If a street is designed in such a way that we also need armed police to monitor it, then the design has already failed. People drive based off of the streets they are given, so if we want to slow cars down, then we need to make sure it’s uncomfortable for drivers to speed in the first place, also known as “self-enforcing streets.” As evidenced by our recent post on the dangers of drivers with suspended licenses, the criminal justice system is not working toward making our streets safer.
We will continue to advocate for safe streets for all, and we feel strongly that funds going toward enforcement would be better spent on robust traffic calming and engineering. We believe that we can more efficiently serve our collective goal of reducing injuries and deaths by changing street design or implementing alternatives to enforcement by armed police.
But that’s not enough, as these decisions must be made with a focus on Equity. The City’s Complete Streets Policy requires that safe streets, “are implemented equitably and inclusively throughout the city,” and further stating that, “many of Pittsburgh’s minority and low-to-moderate income neighborhoods rely heavily on non-auto modes of travel and have been historically left out of transportation decision-making.” In order to reverse the decades of auto-centric planning, the City must provide, “better first mile and last mile connections to and from high-frequency transit stations and improved access to local businesses and other services.” We are committed to following through on this policy to make city streets safe and accessible for everyone.
Street safety is about more than policing the roads
After years of attempted reform measures, both big and small, that police unions have fought, stymied, mocked, or refused to participate in, removing enforcement is our only conscionable path forward.
Street safety means more than just preventing traffic crashes – it also means safety for all residents to travel to their destinations without fearing that the color of their skin determines whether they arrive safely or not. Enforcement, in our estimation, does not guarantee safety for all, and has served to amplify racial disparity in our city for too long.
More Work To Do
In order for things to change, there must first be an explicit acknowledgement of the racial bias in current traffic law enforcement. Dropping our focus on police enforcement is one step that BikePGH is taking to advocate for safe and equitable streets. We plan to focus on this issue more in the near future and will be coming out with concrete advocacy related to policy and budgets. Unfortunately, the brand new Bike(+) Plan, a document that we have advocated for, does mention enforcement as a tool, so we will be pushing for its removal, and lament that we did not push hard enough before its release.
We know that this is just the beginning of the work that needs to happen in order to transform our streets, but also that this work is essential to create equitable neighborhoods where we can all live, walk, play, bike, and breathe.