Civilians Could Make Traffic Stops in L.A., Not Cops

Los Angeles could, for example, use unarmed civilians to enforce “safety-related traffic violations” such as speeding, the report recommends.

LOS ANGELES — Most traffic enforcement in Los Angeles should be done by civilian workers, but only in tandem with major infrastructure upgrades that improve safety along city streets that are among the nation’s deadliest.

Those are the conclusions of a long-delayed report from the city transportation department that has yet to be released. The Times reviewed a draft of the document, which has been in the works for nearly three years, since the City Council first raised the prospect of removing traffic duties from the Los Angeles Police Department.

The debate over what role police should have in enforcing traffic safety comes amid an alarming yearlong rise in road deaths and injuries. It illustrates both the promise and the challenge of removing armed officers from traffic safety duties.

Some transportation safety advocates say persistent traffic violence, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, shows that the city needs to crack down harder on reckless driving.

Supporters of criminal justice reform argue for a less punitive approach. They say those communities have historically borne the brunt of over-aggressive policing, which they contend hasn’t made the streets any safer.

And they allege that, even when such encounters don’t end in violence, the fines that often result can send people into spiraling debt.

The debate over the role of law enforcement in traffic incidents stretches back decades but intensified in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis and the ensuing nationwide reckoning in which critics challenged some long-held assumptions around policing.

The draft report calls for further expanding the LAPD’s restrictions on so-called pretextual stops — using minor traffic violations as a reason to pull over vehicles and search them for evidence of more serious crimes. Such stops were already drastically scaled back after a Times investigation found that the department stopped and searched Black and Latino drivers at higher rates than white motorists.

Department officials have admitted these stops netted few arrests and undermined public trust.

Still, police officials around the U.S. have been slow to rein in the practice too much, saying that it is still a tool for getting guns and drugs off the streets.

LAPD officials have said they would be willing to relinquish certain traffic duties if they are picked up by another agency. But enforcement remains a top priority, they say, citing among other reasons the inherent dangers of traffic stops and a recent rise in accidents.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore said that “finding alternatives to a police response [to certain incidents] is something that the department is very much interested in.”

“If DOT [Los Angeles Department of Transportation] were to pick that work up, I think we’d welcome it,” he said.

He pointed out that teams of mental health workers already respond to some calls involving people in crisis, without police present, and that officers no longer “take traffic collision reports for anything other than the most serious traffic accidents.”

The report’s authors looked to models in other cities that, instead of deploying armed police, have tackled traffic safety by reinvesting in street improvements and educating the public while exploring alternative methods for holding motorists accountable.

Berkeley, for instance, has been developing a new division that aims to send unarmed representatives to certain traffic incidents, instead of police, as the city works toward its goal of reducing racial disparities in traffic stops and ending serious crashes by 2028.

In Philadelphia, officials voted to adopt a model of enforcement used in New Zealand, in which minor traffic violations are handled by unarmed public safety “officers” who work for that city’s transportation department.