Unarmed City Workers, Not Police Officers, to Perform Traffic Stops in California City

Unarmed city workers will conduct traffic stops in a California city, replacing police officers, under a new plan approved this week.

The Berkeley City Council’s vote directed the city manager and city officials to “reimagine public safety” and pursue the creation of a new Department of Transportation “to ensure a racial justice lens in traffic enforcement and the development of transportation policy, programs, & infrastructure,” according to a copy of the council’s agenda.

The goal is “to reduce and/or eliminate the practice of pretextual stops based on minor traffic violations.”

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin, a Democrat who was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), folded the proposal into an omnibus motion.

Arreguin said he doesn’t expect a new transportation department overnight because conversations will be hard and detailed with complicated logistics to figure out. But he said minorities in his city feel targeted by police and that needs to change.

“There may be situations where police do need to intervene, and so we need to look at all that,” he said. “We need to look at if we do move traffic enforcement out of the Police Department, what does that relationship look like and how will police officers work in coordination with unarmed traffic enforcement personnel?”

The plan appears to be the first to split traffic enforcement from uniformed police officers.

A worker makes repairs to the damaged Berkeley police headquarters in Berkeley, Calif., July 15, 2020. (Ben Margot/AP Photo)

The reaction was fierce from some.

“I think what Berkeley is doing is nuts,” said Mark Cronin, a a former traffic officer who directs the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union for officers. “I think it’s a big social experiment. I think it’s going to fail and it’s not going to take long for, unfortunately, traffic collisions, fatalities to increase exponentially.”

Frank Merenda, a former New York City Police Department captain who is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Marist College, added: “Traffic stops are one of the most unpredictable and therefore dangerous duties of law enforcement. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop and to perform them effectively and safely takes months of police training in and outside of an academy.”

And Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, described the idea as an “overly simplistic plan that could have deadly consequences for unarmed traffic enforcement officers.”

The Berkeley Police Department issued a statement Wednesday saying it would work with the community “to determine how we can best evolve to accomplish our mission of safeguarding our community.”

The Berkeley Police Association did not respond to requests for comment. Police unions for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Jose issued a statement opposing the proposal.

The traffic proposal was first introduced by Berkeley City Councilman Rigel Robinson, a Democrat.

“Berkeley residents have made it clear that the current model of policing is not working for our city,” Robinson said in a statement last week. “I’m excited to continue the conversation on reimagining public safety, starting with the way we conduct enforcement on our streets.”

The proposal drew support from community members during the meeting, the Berkeleyside blog reported.

Traffic enforcement is “a tool of broken policing to just do investigations on disproportionately Black and brown drivers and it endangers everyone,” local resident Darrell Owens said. “The status quo has not kept the public safe: Remove it away from the police into a department focused around equity.”

The mayor’s motion also included four other proposals involving the police, including a proposal to slash the department’s budget by 50 percent.

Berkeley police officers in a 2018 file photograph. (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

Berkeley last month cut funding to its police department by 12 percent, or $9.2 million.

Berkeley is a city near San Francisco, with an estimated population of about 121,000.

Council members also approved $160,000 to hire a consultant who will analyze police calls and responses to determine “the quantity and proportion of these calls that can be responded to by non-police services,” according to the council’s agenda.

The Center for Policing Equity found in 2018 that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be stopped by the Berkeley Police Department. The think tank analyzed traffic stops conducted from 2012 to 2016.

Researchers put forth two possible explanations: a community-level explanation, or crime rates, and a policing-level explanation, or officer discretion.

“The community-level explanation could posit that the higher stop, search, and arrest rates of Black and Hispanic drivers (compared to Whites) reflect higher levels of traffic violations and/or criminal behavior among such drivers,” they wrote in a report, adding later: “The higher overall rates of stop, search, and arrest of Black and Hispanic drivers could reflect a pattern of policing discretion that is less forgiving of minor crime.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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