DENVER — A task force to reimagine police has come up with 112 recommendations for ways Denver can improve its public safety.
A major theme throughout the recommendations is finding ways to limit police interactions with the public.
The most common police interaction with people comes in the form of traffic stops, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice. Most of these interactions end with either a warning, ticket or even an arrest.
Sometimes, however, those interactions can be deadly for the police officer or the driver.
“Traffic stops present dangers in multiple ways. Traffic stops are really an unknown for police officers so when they stop somebody, they don’t know where they’re stopping,” said Paul Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. “There is a lot of dynamics at play, and there’s a lot of potential for both misunderstanding and misinterpretation by both parties.”
Taylor is a former police officer who specializes in police decision-making in the context of interactions with the public.
The effectiveness of these stops in increasing public safety is also highly debated, since people might change their behaviors for a short time but then continue dangerous driving habits. For example, drivers might slow down for a brief period after getting a ticket but then go back to their old ways after a while.
“We try to fix that Band-Aid with some policy change, but we’re not really addressing the systemic issues that kind of actually lead to these events,” Taylor said.
Five of the recommendations put forward by the task force call for a fundamental shift in the way traffic stops are handled. Among the recommendations:
- Decriminalize traffic offenses often used for pretextual stops.
- Prohibit Denver Police from conducting searches in relation to petty offenses or traffic violations.
- Remove police officers from routine traffic stops and crash reporting and explore non-police alternatives that incentivize behavior change to eliminate traffic fatalities.
- Eliminate the need for traffic enforcement by auditing and investing in the built environment to promote safe travel behavior.
- Invest in a community-based, community-led violence prevention strategic plan that includes, but is not limited to, traffic stop violence and government sanctioned violence
States like Virginia and cities like Berkley have recently enacted a law to limit the use of some of the most common pretextual traffic stops, like defective taillights, loud exhaust pipes, objects hanging on the rearview mirror, etc.
Meanwhile, states like Texas and Oregon and cities like Seattle, and Pittsburg are considering limiting traffic stops as well. Aurora is also taking a closer look at how a community service officer program could work to compliment police response and allow officers to focus on more critical calls for service as part of its ‘A New Way’ initiative.
Jill Locantore, the executive director of the Denver Streets Partnership, has been working on this issue since 2017 as part of Denver’s Vision Zero plan and says a lot of public safety comes down to street design, not traffic enforcement.
“The reality is right now, our streets are designed to encourage dangerous behaviors. They’re built really wide to encourage cars to go as fast as possible,” Locantore said. “If we actually designed the streets to encourage people to go a safe speed in the first place, that illuminates the need for that kind of interaction with the police.”
Denver is starting to make some of these changes, but Locantore says the changes are not coming nearly fast enough and will require more funding.
In the meantime, the group recommended using civilian city employees to be made responsible for enforcing traffic laws. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen says the city has already taken significant steps in this direction.
“We have, I believe, 29 civilian accident report takers, which minimizes the impact here between a police officer in traffic, and those are the ones that makes sense,” Pazen said.
Another idea to limit interactions: using automated systems like red light or speeding cameras.
These cameras have their own history and their own set of controversy in the state.
However, Taylor worries this type of technology can limit individual discretion of officers to consider someone’s personal circumstances before writing a ticket.
“We need discretionary decision-making because human beings have circumstances in which the human condition impacts decision-making and it impacts the outcome,” Taylor said.
He believes this blanket ticket giving technology could also adversely affect disproportionately-impacted communities and low-income residents more than others.
“We’re going to get equality but the equality in many cases is going to be unjust,” he said. “We really need to be careful about how we apply an over-arching system to things.”
Meanwhile, Murphy Robinson, the executive director for the Denver Department of Public Safety, says part of Denver’s Vison Zero plan to lower traffic deaths depends on traffic enforcement.
“There’s a lot of reasons for why you do traffic enforcement, and so we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and understand the actual reason why we do enforcement,” Robinson said.
Pazen and Robinson said they are taking a closer look at the traffic recommendations.