Los Angeles council OKs study of removing police from traffic enforcement

LOS ANGELES, CA-AUGUST 20, 2019: Bryant Mangum, who has been pulled over and searched many times by the Los Angeles Police Department, stands for a portrait by his car which he was driving when he was pulled over on August 20, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Los Angeles police officers search African Americas and Latinos more often than whites during traffic stops, even though whites are more likely to be found with illegal items, a Times analysis found. (Photo By Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Bryant Mangum stands next to the car he was driving when Los Angeles police pulled him over Aug. 20, 2019. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Four years ago, after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, reform advocates in Los Angeles called for an end to the city's reliance on police. Some urged city leaders to start by taking sworn officers out of traffic enforcement.

They cited persistent racial disparities in stops, searches and arrests, the result of what some said were failed crime-suppression strategies in South L.A. that alienated generations of Black and brown Angelenos. They called on the city to limit how often police pull people over for low-level offenses and to start imagining a future in which unarmed city workers would take over most traffic duties.

This week, the City Council authorized a study to figure out how to do just that — while adding more speed bumps, roundabouts and other street modifications to reduce speeding and unsafe driving.

"I think the city of Los Angeles can lead the nation," said Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, one of the proposal's early champions.

In a 13-0 vote, the council directed city transportation staff and other departments to come back within 90 days with feasibility reports about the cost and logistics of a series of proposals including: creating unarmed civilian teams to respond to certain traffic issues and investigate accidents; limiting fines in poorer communities; and ending the use of stops for minor infractions such as having expired tags or air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Wednesday's vote was met with wary optimism by advocates from Push L.A. coalition — which includes the Community Coalition, Catalyst California and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles — who said it was a long-awaited moment. But they also said they worried about a long road ahead, full of bureaucratic hurdles that stifled past attempts at reform.

Before the council meeting, several dozen organizers held a news conference and rally outside City Hall, holding signs and chanting slogans such as "The People united, will never be defeated." Activists such as Leslie Johnson of Community Coalition vowed to keep pressure on public officials to ensure the study results don't get buried.

They were in downtown L.A. to celebrate a hoped-for victory "but also to let the council know that we're watching," said Johnson, whose South L.A. group pushes for grassroots change. Some speakers invoked Keenan Anderson and others who died in traffic encounters with local police, or gave testimonials about the devastating effects of being pulled over.

Read more: LAPD officers involved in Keenan Anderson death found out of policy

The city's interim chief, Dominic Choi, said Wednesday he was waiting to see what changes the council might propose before evaluating them. But, he said the traffic stops are a good tool to help solve violent crime in the community — if conducted properly and constitutionally.

"Our job is public safety, and we're going to use the tools that are given to us in the best way we can to improve public safety," he said. "So if restrictions are put on us, I'm going to visit roll calls, and I'll talk about this policy change or this law and encourage our officers."

The debate over what role police should have in enforcing traffic safety comes amid an alarming yearlong rise in road deaths and injuries. Some transportation safety advocates say persistent traffic incidents, particularly involving pedestrians and bicyclists and in low-income neighborhoods, show the city needs to crack down harder on reckless driving.

Some council members said during Wednesday's meeting that they saw the proposal as a win-win: addressing road safety while freeing officers to address more serious crimes.

The city's streets continue to be among the deadliest in the country.

According to Los Angeles Police Department data, traffic deaths reached a record high last year with 336 people killed in crashes citywide — up from 312 in 2022 — more than the number who died in homicides. That’s the highest number since the city started keeping statistics more than two decades ago. More than half of those killed, 179, were pedestrians. Serious injury incidents have also been on the rise in recent years.

Although experts say speed is a factor in many serious collisions, police wrote 28% fewer citations to dangerous drivers between 2021 and 2022, in part due to lower staffing, according to an LAPD application for more traffic enforcement funding from the Office of Traffic Safety.

In a statement, Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Colin Sweeney said the agency "looks forward to continuing our work with the Mayor, City Council, and partner agencies to advance these recommendations and ensure the safety of our streets for all Angelenos."

In L.A., as in many other U.S. cities, Floyd's 2020 murder inspired calls for wholesale policing reforms, as officials pledged to begin looking for ways to embrace new strategies to keep communities safe. The city's transportation department was ordered to produce a report on alternatives to traffic enforcement — a precursor to any legislation.

But after years of delays, the initial optimism gave way to worry, then anger, as activists and some council members raised concerns that the window for radical change was closing, and L.A. was falling further behind other cities that have already studied the issue.

When the study was finally released last year, it made the case for what many advocates had long argued: L.A. could follow in the steps of cities such as Philadelphia and Berkeley, which have scaled back police enforcement of many traffic violations, but only in tandem with major infrastructure upgrades that improve road safety.

“From our perspective, having another feasibility study is not necessary; there’s numerous cities around the country that have already adopted a variety of these reforms," Chauncee Smith of advocacy group Catalyst California said in an interview this week. "We’re focusing on changing the conditions, as opposed to punishing a person for something that they did or did not do.”

He and other advocates cited mounting research in other cities that showed road improvements along high-injury street corridors were more effective at changing driver behaviors, and ultimately reducing the number of traffic-related deaths and serious injuries, than the threat of being ticketed. Instead of paying for more traffic officers, they said, the city should invest in upgrades such as narrower streets, dedicated bike lanes and more clearly marked pedestrian crosswalks.

At the same time, advocates say, the city should consider a sliding “means-based” fee model — such as vouchers mailed to motorists to help cover repairs for, say, broken taillights — that would help improve safety, without unnecessarily criminalizing traffic violators or sending them into spiraling debt.

Read more: Minor police encounters plummet after LAPD put limits on stopping drivers and pedestrians

Johnson, Smith and others also argued for a less punitive approach that doesn’t repeat the harm of past efforts and an outright ban on so-called pretextual stops, in which police use a minor violation as justification to stop someone in order to investigate whether a more serious crime has occurred.

The department has reined in the practice in recent years under intense public pressure but never abandoned it. But further changes could require legislation and are likely to face stiff opposition from police unions such as the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

The league, which represents the city's rank-and-file officers, released a list of low-level calls that it didn't think needed a police intervention: traffic duty was not one of them. Although top LAPD officials have in the past signaled a willingness to relinquish certain traffic duties, other law enforcement experts have dismissed similar proposals as fanciful, especially at a time when sometimes risky behaviors such as street takeovers and illegal racing have increased.

A 2022 Loyola Marymount University survey of Los Angeles residents showed public opinion was largely split on the issue of using unarmed traffic officers or another alternative approach, such as a civilian response team, to handle traffic issues.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.