The Case for Unarmed Traffic Police

“A nation that can travel in space to other worlds should be able to develop technology that is able to monitor, control and sanction errant drivers without the use of an armed police officer.”

Before I begin this discussion I want you to think about how we already use unarmed persons to enforce our rules and laws. For example, construction, health and housing code enforcement officers, fire safety inspectors, TSA employees, and many other areas of our lives. Even previous armed police functions, parking enforcement and traffic control at busy urban street corners has already been delegated to parking control officers and traffic wardens.

So what’s so special, so different about how we operate our rules regarding motor vehicles?

Using armed officials to enforce non-criminal behavior always presents the danger of them using deadly force when an enforcement contact leads to conflict. Nevertheless, it is important for the health and safety of our nation that the rules we have enacted to reduce traffic deaths and injuries be followed.

This is important so that we all can enjoy our roads and highways. To do this we offer driver safety education, test and license drivers, and fund traffic safety campaigns. We also enact safety standards for automobile manufacturers. 

In my lifetime, I have seen improved construction, technology, and safety features within American motor vehicles on almost a yearly basis. As a boy learning to drive, my car had neither seat belts or air bags. The roads I drove on were often poor and with confusing signs. Today, standards for road construction and traffic control devices have also contributed to reducing accidental injuries and deaths. Over the years, the rate of traffic deaths on our roads and highways have been significantly reduced because of these improvements

Technology has played a major part in this success. But where technology has not played a major role is how we enforce our moving traffic rules. We know of the existence of photo radar for speed and intersection control, and real-time video scanning of license plates. But they have been slow to be accepted into our public life.

We are in a period today in which we really do need to consider “color and status-blind” traffic enforcement; that is, by machine rather than a human person. While we enact laws to prevent police from randomly stopping drivers without a reason, I can report to you that there are so many traffic laws that it is almost impossible for a person to operate an automobile without violating one or more of them, thereby creating a reason for a stopp and investigation. 

For example, driving a few miles over the speed limit, not making a full stop at an intersection, waiting too long to use your turning signal, failing to fully scrape the morning frost off your windshield, etc. (If you don’t believe me, read through your state’s traffic code to find all ways you could be in violation).

Every good street cop knows this, knows how to legally stop just about any vehicle. It’s just a matter of time and focussed observation. The question I am presenting is whether or not an armed person is the method to enforce our traffic rules?

So, what are some other ways to respond to poor or errant driving?

  1. Impaired Driving. We already have devices to help insure a motorist is sober before they can start their vehicle. We could further develop this technology and require it to be standard equipment..
  2. Speeders. We could require manufacturers to install a “cut-off” chip within every vehicle which could be activated by police or monitored on various thoroughfares shutting down excessively speeding or erratically driven vehicles. Such a device could even prevent a vehicle from driving faster than the posted speed limit.
  3. Evaders. As above, fleeing cars could be disabled by a police officer. Other policies could be developed which would not severely penalize poor drivers by setting fines as a percent of the driver’s annual income. This would also be a disincentive to communities who rely on traffic fine revenues generated by excessive enforcement (speed traps) to beef up the city budget. 
  4. Overall Traffic Control. Technology, such as video cameras and monitor points can be developed which would identify errant drivers and send them a citation or court order in lieu of trying to apprehend them..
  5. Unarmed Traffic Police. Other countries have have done this and in our nation, Berkeley, CA and Cambridge, MA are considering this change. (When I was chief of police in Burnsville, MN [1969-72], we used unarmed Community Service Officers to do routine traffic enforcement.) We can make the enforcement of traffic rules the responsibility of non-armed traffic wardens or community service officers (as most cities did with parking enforcement). This would reduce the possibility that a person resisting a traffic ticket would not suffer death for their resistance. 

All in all, a nation that can travel in space to other worlds should be able to develop technology that is able to monitor, control and sanction errant drivers without the use of an armed police officer.

I say it’s time to talk about and experiment with these ideas and save our armed police officers for other duties which necessitate them to be armed.

What’s your thoughts on this?