Speed cameras and unarmed agents cannot produce the same benefits associated with police enforcement
NEW YORK, NY — Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced last month that the city’s police force would reduce its traffic enforcement footprint; in New York, State Attorney General Letitia James has called on the NYPD to do the same. But what would a world without police-led traffic enforcement look like? In a new issue brief for the Manhattan Institute, Deputy Inspector John Hall of the NYPD’s Office of Crime Control Strategies analyzes this policy proposal in light of the available evidence, including the data linking traffic infractions to more serious crime. His review, part of the Institute’s Policing & Public Safety Initiative, concludes that police-led traffic enforcement saves lives, reduces street disorder, and plays an important role in criminal investigations—benefits which cannot be efficiently replicated via “alternatives,” including unarmed traffic agents or camera technology.
Hall’s paper demonstrates that traffic enforcement is a key component of crime suppression, noting that both serious crime and traffic accidents spiked in the early-pandemic months when the NYPD cut back on traffic enforcement. One important example can be found in the relaxing of rules regarding temporary paper license plates due to DMV closures. Halfway through 2020, the NYPD noticed a sharp increase in “paper plates” on the road. A substantial number of these plates proved to be fraudulent, with the problem exploding as the department’s traffic enforcement continued to plummet (the number of tickets issued to cars with fake plates jumped from 2,309 to 29,320 during the same 10-month window in 2020 versus 2019). Fraudulent plates are associated with more serious crimes: from January 1, 2019 to June 6, 2021, fake plates were connected to 1,504 arrests for crimes such as illegal gun possession, stolen cars, and drunk driving.
Vehicles also played a significant role in the city’s 2020 gun violence spike. A three-month analysis at the end of 2020 revealed that across every borough, vehicle-involved shootings comprised a higher percentage of total shootings than in prior years. In 2020, the NYPD made 1,791 illegal gun arrests during vehicle stops, accounting for 42.3% of all gun arrests made that year. While vehicles continue to play a role in crime, police investigations work best when detectives collaborate with the patrol forces to gather information.
In light of these data, Hall cautions against proposals to push police out of traffic enforcement. While the primary purpose of enforcing traffic laws is to reduce crash-related injuries and fatalities, patrol forces play a significant role in crime prevention that speed cameras and agents with fewer enforcement powers cannot replicate.