The death of Daunte Wright bolsters demands to get police officers out of traffic-law enforcement.
Traffic laws didn’t kill Daunte Wright, but critics of the police are using his death to call for an end to their enforcement. Likewise with George Floyd and laws against counterfeiting.
On April 11 Brooklyn Center, Minn., police stopped Wright, 20, for an expired vehicle registration. Officers then discovered that Mr. Wright had an open warrant for failing to appear in court on charges of illegal gun possession and fleeing from arrest. After following instructions to get out of his car, Wright fought with the cops and lunged back into the driver’s seat when they attempted to arrest him on the outstanding warrant. One of the officers reached for her Taser but, she claims, mistakenly grabbed her pistol instead. She fired one lethal shot.
Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill, a federal offense, at a Minneapolis convenience store on May 25, 2020. The cashier called police after Floyd refused to return the cigarettes he bought. Floyd intermittently resisted arrest, prompting the responding officers to put him face down on the ground, handcuffed. Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck and collarbone for nearly eight minutes. Floyd passed out and died. A jury convicted Mr. Chauvin of second-degree murder.
Wright’s and Floyd’s deaths were caused by a combination of their own actions and those of the arresting officers. But leftist politicians and commentators are blaming the laws the men violated in the first place. “No one should die over a traffic stop,” New York City Councilman Brad Lander said. CNN’s John Avlon asserted that “passing a counterfeit bill can get you killed in the U.S.” Yale legal scholar James Forman Jr. and a law student wrote in the Washington Post that “having expired tags or temporary plates” must be added to the list of actions that can “shatter Black lives”—never mind that Wright’s abortive arrest was not for expired tags but for failing to answer to gun charges.
Calls are escalating to take the police out of traffic enforcement and retail theft response. New York state Attorney General Letitia James has proposed that New York City police cease routine traffic stops. Urban League President Marc Morial told CNN that police departments should “discontinue the discredited broken-windows policing of the 1990s,” including traffic enforcement. Instead, the thinking goes, unarmed civilian traffic agents and speeding cameras should enforce the rules of the road. Berkeley, Calif., has already banned officers from making stops for many traffic offenses, and jurisdictions like Lansing, Mich., and the District of Columbia are following suit.
But it is precisely high-crime areas that most need traffic enforcement. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an office of the Transportation Department, has a program based on the “nexus of crashes and crime.” For decades, research has found that neighborhoods with the highest rates of fatal accidents also have the highest rates of violent crime. And when the police pay inadequate attention to traffic violations, “people feel they may break the law with impunity,” according to a 2000 study.
In Oakland, Calif., nearly 60% of fatalities and serious injuries occur on only 6% of the city’s streets, overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods. Blacks in Oakland are twice as likely as others to die or be severely injured in traffic incidents, and black pedestrians are three times as likely to die, according to an Oakland equity study.
Yet Oakland police were ordered to decrease their traffic involvement sharply following a Stanford study accusing them of racial profiling. The result has been growing disorder. Councilman Loren Taylor reported last month his constituents’ sense of a “general lawlessness and a lack of accountability for driving however you want to in the city.” Traffic deaths were up 22% in Oakland in 2020. Most of the victims were black.
Milwaukee has documented the inverse correlation between car stops and nonfatal shootings, robberies and car thefts. When traffic enforcement declines, those crimes increase, says former Police Chief Edward Flynn. It is a truism of policing that “criminals are bad drivers,” Mr. Flynn says. “They don’t follow traffic laws or update their vehicle registration. Years ago, I learned that expired inspection stickers were the quickest way to find a warrant fugitive.”
Police veterans doubt that unarmed civilian agents would be able to keep order. Felons would be likelier to flee an unarmed agent—if the agent is lucky. Like most unwinding of police authority in the name of racial equity, forbidding uniformed traffic enforcement would endanger the people the reformers claim to be protecting.
Last September a North Minneapolis high-school principal publicly begged for more police enforcement after one of her seniors was fatally gunned down. “We are literally in a city that is completely and entirely out of control,” said Mauri Melander Friestleben in a self-made video. “I can see outright laws getting broken, traffic laws, people driving outright through red lights, speeding, going 60 to 70 miles per hour. We got kids on skateboards getting hit by cars.” Yet the police do nothing, she said, having been bludgeoned into passivity by the city’s anticop activists.
As for shoplifting and the use of phony currency, stores are under pressure not to call the police or even to detain offenders. The effective decriminalization of shoplifting in San Francisco unleashed widespread looting, as this page noted last November. In New York and Chicago, gangs of thieves regularly rampage through stores grabbing high-end items, confident in their impunity. The victims of such predation are not only corporations but immigrant small-business owners.
This process of decriminalization has been going on for several years and is rapidly accelerating. Left-wing district attorneys decline to prosecute arrests that are said to have a disparate impact on blacks for crimes including subway fare evasion, trespassing, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, public intoxication and even some gun-possession offenses.
Such a retreat isn’t what the law-abiding residents of high-crime neighborhoods want. “I cringe when I hear people say black communities are over-policed,” Sandra Wortham, sister of a slain Chicago police officer, wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times. “My neighborhood is not over-policed. My lived experience has shown me that policing that tackles the small things prevents the big things.”
The solution to the rare but tragic police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians is not to get the police out of law enforcement. It is improved tactical and antistress training for officers, combined with an unequivocal message from political and community leaders to anyone who comes in contact with police: Comply with officers’ lawful commands, and don’t resist arrest.
Ms. Mac Donald is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.