Opinion | Train the Police to Keep the Peace, Not Turn a Profit

Some police departments across the country have adopted the corrupting and unjust practice of increasing the revenues of their municipalities by getting officers to write down as many traffic tickets as possible.

Policing for profit encourages the unfair application of the law. It also increases the likelihood that motorists who stop for violations unrelated to public safety will be killed or injured during confrontations with officers trained to view traffic stops as moments of mortal danger.

The situation calls for departments to change how officers are trained. Ultimately, these departments need to step down from practices that bring too many people into contact with the law under circumstances that often lead to what a district attorney refers to as “pre-emptive killings” by police officers.

The New York Times outlined these and other issues in a disturbing investigation of a culture that often turns traffic stops for common violations into unnecessary beatings, car chases or shootings.

The Times investigation found that over the past five years, police officers have killed more than 400 drivers who did not brandish firearms or knives or were not prosecuted for serious crimes.

Many of these dead motorists ended up at stops that started with standard violations such as breaking taillights or turning on a red light. Time and time again, prosecutors have convinced the courts that the killings were legally justified because the officers felt their lives were in danger.

Only five officers were convicted of crimes related to these deaths – but local governments ended up paying at least $125 million to settle about 40 wrongful death cases and other claims.

A Times investigation into a number of interviews found that officers often overestimated the risk to their lives. Even worse, officers usually create dangerous situations by standing in front of fleeing cars or getting inside vehicles. Then they fired their weapons in what they later described as self-defense.

African-American motorists were significantly over-represented among the dead. The criminologist told The Times that exaggerating the danger of stopping was compounded by racial prejudice: “Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘blacks are dangerous’, and the combination of the two is fickle,” he said.

Officers are sometimes killed during a traffic stop, but statistically the odds of that happening are low. Traffic stops are the most common point of contact between people and the law. Given that there are tens of millions of such layovers each year, studies have found that the chances of an officer being killed during one are less than 1 in 3.6 million.

However, police academies tend to show cadet gory videos and worst-case scenarios, while portraying a traffic stop as the most dangerous confrontation an officer could engage in.

As one police official told The Times: “All I’ve heard are horrific stories about what could happen. It’s very hard trying to train that from someone.” A culture of gross exaggeration creates an atmosphere in which egregious police behavior that leads to civilian deaths is considered acceptable.

For example, The Times investigation found that more than three-quarters of unarmed motorists who died while trying to escape. Dashboard and body camera footage showed the officers “shooting at cars that were moving away, threatening with lethal force in their first words to motorists, or surrounding sleeping drivers with a ring of gun barrels—then shooting them when they woke up, trying to take off.”

The federal government is exacerbating this problem by spending more than $600 million annually to subsidize ticket writing. At least 20 countries have responded to this policy by rating police officers based on the number of stops they make per hour.

Sometimes communities that depend on traffic offense revenue maintain larger police departments than is really necessary just for the purpose of making money. The Times investigation found more than 730 municipalities rely on fees and fines for at least 10 percent of their revenue.

The town of Henderson, with a population of about 2,000, got nearly 90 percent of its public revenue from fines and fees in 2019. Oliver, GA, of about 380 people, gets more than half of its budget from fines. A state investigation found that city police last year wrote tickets worth more than $40,000 outside their legal jurisdiction.

Departments that scour particularly poor communities for ticket revenue—and whose officers sometimes manufacture infractions—undermine confidence in the law. Policing for profit also subjects motorists to unfair scrutiny and potentially dangerous confrontation with officers during traffic stops. States and municipalities need to stay away from this practice.

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