Civilian Traffic Enforcement in Berkeley: Is it Possible?

Two new bills have the power to change how Berkeley conducts traffic enforcement.

At the time of publication, the California Senate has passed Senate Bill 50, a significant step in its advancement through the California Legislature. The brainchild of Los Angeles-based state Senator Steven Bradford, the bill would make important strides in prohibiting pretext stops by police, but its real innovation is that it would explicitly authorize communities across California to enforce their traffic laws with non-police government employees. In Washington, Congress is considering a related proposal by New York Representative Richie Torres to create a federal grant program that would fund local efforts to transfer traffic enforcement responsibilities from police to civilians.

If passed, these bills would finally allow the City of Berkeley to realize its vision to establish the country’s first civilian-led traffic enforcement unit, three years after the city made national headlines with a proposal to transition the responsibility of traffic enforcement out of the hands of police and into a new department of transportation with a racial justice lens.

These bills will undoubtedly have a wider impact than just Berkeley, encouraging cities in California and around the country to rethink how they enforce traffic laws and find new ways to uphold street safety.

At a time where communities have been advocating for and implementing change to advance racial justice, Berkeley’s endeavor, if successful, could spur a fundamental shift in how American policing is conducted. However, since 2020, the ambitious venture seems to have slowly faded from the headlines, leaving many who were inspired by the work to ponder its fate.

This pondering led us here at the Center to explore important questions about the status of Berkeley’s new transportation department, the obstacles that have obstructed the city’s path, and the general feasibility of civilian traffic enforcement.

How would civilian traffic enforcement work?

It’s important to begin our discussion by illustrating how civilian traffic enforcement would work in practice.

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In a 2021 article published in the Stanford Law Review, criminologist and legal scholar Jordan Blair Woods established the most extensive framework for civilian traffic enforcement to date. In his model, traffic agencies would employ traffic monitors, who are non-police civil servants. While traffic monitors would become the main enforcers of traffic laws, police officers would still retain a limited role in the arena.

The framework consists of three key features. First, the types of traffic stops police officers would be allowed to conduct should be limited to a much more narrow set, such as those for outstanding felony warrants and felony vehicle stops. Woods argues that limiting this police power would serve as a robust exercise for cities to open the door for a new kind of traffic enforcer.

Second, he illustrates how jurisdictions can establish traffic agencies and carve out their distinct role. These agencies would function independently from police departments, and unarmed traffic monitors would be entirely limited to the enforcement of traffic laws. If a traffic monitor faced a more serious traffic violation or criminal offense, they would request police assistance. In the case of a possible drunk driver, for example, Woods posits that the traffic monitor either conducts their own investigation or calls a police officer to the scene if an administrative sanction is not an option; for example, if the traffic monitor determines that the driver is intoxicated or has had multiple DUI offenses.

Finally, jurisdictions should reevaluate and “trim” their existing traffic codes. Woods argues that part of the reason why police-led traffic enforcement system is structured as it is is to allow police officers to have an expansive toolkit to choose from when pulling drivers over. By trimming traffic codes, only the violations which pose a threat to public safety would remain. Here, Woods cites the Driving Equality Bill in Philadelphia as an example of a successful effort to shift traffic stop priorities. Our previous work on pretext stops shows how San Francisco recently underwent a similar process. Woods also highlights that expansive traffic codes allow for traffic enforcement to become a tool for financial and professional advancement. He argues that jurisdictions should reevaluate their fines and fees systems with an equity framework, and remove professional incentives that “encourage aggressive and biased traffic enforcement.”

Woods’ article, while a self-described “normative vision” that challenges the conventional wisdom around traffic enforcement, is influential with policymakers. Those close to the development of Berkeley’s new traffic department have cited Woods’ framework to us as one of very few U.S. models for cities to look to. In fact, in may be the only one.

This is a challenge because, for Berkeley and other communities around the country that seek to reimagine their traffic safety systems, it is instrumental to find existing, viable civilian traffic enforcement models. But, with the United States providing almost no templates, where can these examples be found?

Outside of the United States, we can see a comprehensive model for how this project could work in New Zealand. For more than 60 years, between 1929 and 1992, the country’s Traffic Safety Service was a federal government agency that enforced traffic laws entirely separate from the New Zealand Police—the national police force. Under this system, police officers still had the power to enforce traffic laws, and were only pulled into traffic situations when the incident involved a personal injury or drunk driving. Robust research on the agency’s operations is limited, but a 1971 study on the differences between traffic enforcement in New Zealand and Australia, which employed police-led traffic enforcement, found that separating traffic enforcement from the police improved police-community relations.

Under the Traffic Safety Service, drivers who were stopped were rarely given tickets. Traffic officers were drawn to the role because of their passion for road safety and were less concerned with meeting ticket quotas.

However, at a time of intense cost-cutting campaigns across the country, government officials chose to merge the agency with the police force. As the Traffic Safety Service already worked closely with the police and lacked an institutional focus on ticketing drivers in order to raise government revenue, the responsibility of traffic enforcement was absorbed by the police force.

Despite the fact that the agency was ultimately shut down, the Traffic Safety Service could provide an excellent model for cities like Berkeley. The agency’s decades-long legacy demonstrates how non-police officials could successfully enforce traffic laws and work alongside police officers, while also preserving the police officers’ core duties in handling more serious violations. As mentioned above, academic research on the agency is hard to find, but within New Zealand, local museums and research collections, as well as former traffic officers potentially could help answer many of the questions by communities looking to institute similar departments.

Within the United States, parking enforcement officers, an existing role in several jurisdictions, could serve as a foundation for communities to build on. These officers, often located within police, public works, or transportation departments, handle parking and non-moving violations.

Parking enforcement officers in Berkeley are housed in the police department, and have the ability to provide traffic control if necessary. What this means is that these officers could theoretically serve as the first batch of traffic officers in Berkeley; highly trained unarmed civil servants who already have an understanding of the traffic code. If successful, this could provide an implementable framework for jurisdictions that also already have parking enforcement officers.

Angie Chen, legislative aide to Berkeley City Councilman Rigel Robinson and a leading voice on the city’s traffic enforcement project, says that shifting existing parking enforcement officers to the newly planned transportation department is an option that the city is considering.

As in Woods’ framework, Berkeley’s new traffic officers would likely pass off more dangerous traffic stops, such as possible DUIs or existing warrants, to police. Chen says “one thing that we are cognizant of is employee safety,” adding “we don’t want to put people in dangerous situations.”

Highlighting parking enforcement officers could serve as a powerful tool against the pushback for civilian traffic enforcement. For many, it is taken for granted that police officers do not spend their limited time and resources enforcing parking codes. What if that same understanding was expanded to traffic enforcement as a whole?

What’s happening in Berkeley now?

Since the initial proposal, a major hurdle has stood in the way of bringing Berkeley’s new transportation department to life: the prevailing view that sworn peace officers—police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and highway patrol officers—are currently the only officials who can enforce traffic laws under the California Vehicle Code. These officers are clearly authorized to enforce the vehicle code’s regulations, arrest drivers for various vehicle code violations, and issue traffic citations. Sen. Bradford’s bill, SB 50, responds to calls from communities like Berkeley to reform the vehicle code and permit non-police government employees to handle traffic enforcement.

Berkeley has advocated for this statewide change since 2020, engaging lobbyists— an increasingly common tactic for local governments—to move the city’s civilian traffic enforcement plan forward. Chen, the city council aide, tells us that while there has been interest in Sacramento over the past several years, Bradford’s bill represented the first significant step towards making civilian traffic enforcement a possibility.

While Berkeley waits to see the outcome of this bill, the city is moving forward with other significant changes and more planning around the transportation department. Chen says that the planning of the department has encouraged city officials to think more creatively about traffic enforcement as a whole. For example, earlier this year, the city council approved significant changes to the city’s traffic fines and fee system, including expanded payment plans and reduced late fees.

“When we were first looking at this vision, we were really focusing on the civilianized enforcement part, but because that is currently prohibited on the state level, we had to look at different options,” she says.

One way Berkeley is doing that is through urban design. The department intends to employ transportation planners and managers, aimed at making Berkeley’s roads safer for pedestrians and motorists alike. According to Chen, this portion of the department will work hand in hand with the traffic officers to achieve their goals.

“We need to have street design efforts that make it so that it is always safe, not just safe when a police officer is there.”

There is also the question of public approval for non-police traffic enforcement. While the people of Berkeley have supported and advocated for the transportation department, other jurisdictions that hope to enact similar change may have a harder time overcoming arguments advanced by supporters of police traffic enforcement.

These advocates have argued that traffic stops can be dangerous, hostile encounters and police officers are the only public servants qualified and trained to handle these stops.

Woods analyzes this perception of danger for police during traffic stops in a 2019 article. Through his analysis of 200 Florida law enforcement agencies between 2005-2014, he argues that the perceived danger for police during traffic stops may be overblown. Using a conservative estimate, he found that officers are killed at a rate of 1 in every 6.5 million stops, and seriously injured at a rate of 1 in every 361,111 stops. Woods argues that despite these low rates, officers are trained—and train others—to believe that every traffic stop has the potential to be fatal.

Supporters of police retaining their traffic role also assert that traffic enforcement is a core policing responsibility that is necessary to ensure safer streets.

Yet, the reality is that even with police traffic enforcement, our roads continue to be highly unsafe. American road deaths consistently outpace similarly developed nations. Pedestrians killed while walking increased in 2020, despite driving going down. Alarmingly, these deaths are also racially unequal, with Black and Latino pedestrians being killed at higher rates than white pedestrians.

It’s clear that something must change. Supporters of police traffic enforcement would argue that the change should be to increase the numbers of traffic police. However, cities significantly increasing the number of officers they employ and assign to traffic enforcement would inevitably lead to other issues, including increased perceptions of racial discrimination and higher rates of punitively expensive traffic fines.

 The road ahead for traffic enforcement

Berkeley still has a long way to go with its project to transform traffic enforcement. While the city continues to lobby at the state level for SB 50, work is still being done on the ground to establish the transportation department’s structure and identify hiring needs. Additionally, Chen tells us that the city is in talks with both the police and parking enforcement officers’ unions to organize support for the formation of the new department.

Since Berkeley’s initial proposal, other communities have considered similar reforms, most recently Los Angeles. Reporting on a study that is soon to be released by the city’s transportation department suggests that it will call for civil servants to take over traffic enforcement. Despite a warm reception from the Los Angeles Police Department, similar impediments stand in the way, including police union opposition. However, the passage of SB 50 and establishment of Berkeley’s civilian traffic enforcement system could provide an invaluable framework.

Traffic enforcement, like many other societal functions, and policing have been intrinsically linked for decades. To begin to remove that connection will require concrete evidence that it is possible to do so. That is precisely why a project like Berkeley’s has the potential to be so impactful; communities like Los Angeles will have the opportunity to watch and learn from Berkeley, and to come up with individualized solutions that work for them.

As our streets continue to become more unsafe and Black and Latino drivers are disproportionately targeted by police in the name of traffic enforcement, it is imperative for policymakers, researchers, and communities to work together to imagine other ways to promote traffic safety.

An initiative like Berkeley’s may not be the answer for every community, but it presents a step in the right direction. It is easy to assume that the status quo is working and that any change will result in more danger, but it is even more dangerous to continue to fund unjust, broken systems.

Both Berkeley and Los Angeles’ proposals build on their cities’ commitments to Vision Zero, an ambitious plan to end all traffic deaths that many American cities have joined in recent years. Could this blueprint make traffic enforcement more effective and racially just? We’ll navigate this question and more in our next essay.