Crime fighting by traffic stop

I rarely find myself in agreement – even partial agreement – with Berkeley Daily Planet columnist J. Douglas Allen Taylor (hey, he said it about me first!), but I did enjoy his column today about the inappropriateness of a traffic stop based crime reduction strategy.

Taylor describes an incident he witnessed where a car was pulled over for missing registration stickers on the back license plate (it turned out the car was properly registered, and that the stickers were on the front license plate). The four young men in the car were then removed from the car, searched, and made to wait handcuffed in the police car or on the curb while their car was searched. After nothing illicit was found, the men were uncuffed and told to switch the front and rear license plates.

Taylor goes on to say:

And in fact, the stop appears not be some random action by individual officers, but part of the strategy that Area One (North Oakland-West Oakland) Captain Anthony Toribio earlier this year famously called “showing the flag,” in which Oakland police officers use massive “routine” traffic stops to try to ferret out evidence of serious crimes. Mr. Toribio was talking about instituting the crime-fighting-by-traffic-stop strategy in the Dogtown section of West Oakland, but we have seen it instituted out here in the East Oakland flats since the old “Operation Impact” days of the Jerry Brown administration. The purpose of the policy is to use routine non-moving traffic stops on “suspicious” individuals—the “suspicious” being undefined on paper, but you are free to come up with your own criteria of how our police officers select the targets—then to be able to run warrant checks on the drivers and all individuals in the car, as well as to look for an excuse to be able to search both the occupants and the car—as happened in the license plate stop in my neighborhood described above—in the hope of coming up with something illegal.

One wonders how all of this is being taken in and processed by the people who are actually stopped. For a violation that for most citizens would have warranted a simple instruction from the officers to correct an inadvertent mistake, they found themselves detained, publicly humiliated and embarrassed, and their belongings dumped out in the gutter. Will this experience lead them to become better citizens? Hard to think it will.

If the purpose of OPD’s blanket traffic stop policy—blanketing only “certain” elements within the community is to get these “certain” individuals out of Oakland—either by harassing them so much that they figure it’s better just to move to Antioch or Bakersfield, or by keeping their lives so disrupted that they end up unable to hold down a regular job and turn back to crime, eventual arrest, and parole or probation violation that sends them back to Santa Rita or beyond—then by all means, the police department should continue this policy. One way or the other, it will accomplish that purpose.

Taylor’s correct that the practice is dehumanizing, and that’s reason enough to be concerned about it. Also, it’s stupid. I don’t know if this is our local attempt to mimic the detain-subway-turnstile-jumpers strategy that was such a smash in New York (turned out one out of every seven fare evaders had an outstanding arrest warrant) or what, but if so, it is, like most things Oakland does, second rate and ill-considered. Surely we can find more effective ways of using our extremely limited public safety resources than pulling people over and harassing them pretty much at random, crossing our fingers and hoping to find a reason for arrest.

23 thoughts on “Crime fighting by traffic stop

  1. Robert

    Whether this is good or bad policy really depends on how appropriate the criteria for “suspicious’ individuals are. If half the stops lead to an arrest, then I would say that the police are exercising reasonable procedures. If most of they time there is nothing more than the initial traffic infraction, then it is nothing more than prejudice, and a waste of time.

  2. Chris Kidd

    Aren’t these youth that are getting targeted for being “suspicious” the same youth that are supposed to be developed into the next generation of Oakland police officers?

    So many candidates and sitting councilmembers have been stressing the need to have local police that come from the neighborhoods they serve who would better understand the people and streets of oakland. Now how exactly are you going to convince these same youth to serve their city when the only interactions they have with police are extremely negative, humiliating and arbitrary confrontations?

    I am all for vigorous crime reduction strategies in Oakland. If such practices can be utilized using a better definition than “suspicious”, and if these measures can bear some justifiable fruits, then I’d be all for them. But this does, however, seem to be something of a disconnect between OPD and our elected officials. Maybe we should have an over-night lock-in at the YMCA and not let them all out until they get all their policies straight?

  3. scottpark

    With the overall caveat that police officers have every responsibility to act in a constitutional, professional, strategic, and rational way (perhaps too much to ask), I support the general practice of using traffic stops as a method of allowing further investigation of, yes, suspicious individuals in, yes, crappy parts of town. In many situations where officers cannot search, detain or run background checks on suspects (such as folks using their constitutionally protected right to hang out on a corner for 6 hours), the fact that driving is a privilege regulated by the State of California opens up any number of legitimate investigative options. Many, many crimes involve cars, and using targeted methods to track car ownership and usage, including searches of cars, seems legit to me.

    Of course there are issues with who or who isn’t “suspicious,” but that isn’t isolated to just this particular tactic, as are the concerns about humiliating people.. There’s nothing endemic to this practice that requires humiliation.

  4. Mike Hardy

    I was under the impression that the question of searching a car that was stopped for a routine traffic stop, in the absence of other evidence, was recently adjudicated and the decision was that it was an illegal search?

    So it’s not so much that I agree this is a really annoying policy, but more importantly how are they getting away with it?

    Here’s a link to what is essentially an advocacy site (so be careful) but it appears to be well written and sourced:
    here (or more specifically)
    here

    I’m pro-police, and almost always pro-law-and-order but I’m also a firm believer in everyone playing by the rules and respecting rights.

    Seems like some people aren’t, and that chafes…

    This comment was edited by V Smoothe on May 19, 2008 to change formatting which was making it impossible for some readers to view the page. None of the comment’s substance was altered.

  5. Max Allstadt

    We’re not just fighting crime by traffic stop. We’re fighting crime with parking rules, which is royally royally messed up. It’s one thing to pull over anybody who has an expired reg and check for warrants. It’s another entirely to screw up neighborhood improvement with parking rules that thwart development.

    What am I talking about? You can’t park overnight on almost all of San Pablo between Grand and 40th. Telegraph has similarly restrictive rules. I think they’re meant to thwart transients living in cars. There’s simply no valid reason to clean these streets every single night. The result is that development is discouraged: who wants to live on a thoroughfare where you can’t park on the street overnight. What’s worse is that the General Plan specifically wants housing on these corridors.

    I have no problem with traffic stops, with a caveat of my own. As technology develops, we should be monitoring everything cops do. In five years time, cops should have tech that records their entire shift, turning it off should be grounds for dismissal. It’ll be useful in court to be able to have that sort of record. Useful for the prosecution and defense. Fair is fair.

  6. V Smoothe Post author

    Checking for outstanding warrants on people who have been pulled over for legitimate traffic violations is one thing, and a practice I don’t object to at all. In fact, not doing so would be silly. Handcuffing people who have no outstanding warrants and who haven’t committed any traffic infraction and searching their person and car in hopes of finding something incriminating is a whole different issue. Mr. Allen-Taylor’s story is far from the first one like this I’ve heard.

  7. Joanna/OnTheGoJo

    Max – the reason there’s no parking at night isn’t because of people living in cars. It’s because of street cleaning. Well, alright, the street cleaning is just an excuse. I have no idea if they do street cleaning there or how often.

    We battle that every few years in the Jack London District – and have never won – because we have to move cars every other day for “street cleaning”. Take public transport or stuck home sick as a dog and forget to move your car? That will cost you $52. Some areas may actually be cleaned daily as I learned back when I was on the parking task force, but others are cleaned at random such as ours. We’re lucky to get every it once every 2-3 months. Instead, the City uses it for income from the tickets.

  8. josh abrams

    Officer Saftey. Ring any bells? If a solo officer with no backup pulls over 4 people in a car and finds he has cause to search it, he will take them out of the car and restrain them to protect himself. I’ve been hassled by police before, and on balance it isn’t a big deal to be put in cuffs for 20 minutes.

    That said, never consent to search – and never talk to the police unless you are reporting a crime or if refusal to answer will put you in jail (you must identify yourself to an officer who stops you, etc.)

    this video is really great on the topic: http://www.regent.edu/admin/media/schlaw/LawPreview/

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    In the incident Mr. Allen-Taylor witnessed, there were two officers, and it appears no reasonable cause to search the car. A right to search the car if any of the individuals present were on probation or parole, but doing so hardly seems to me like a good use of limited police time.

  10. Deckin

    I’m going to have to side with the police on this one. Or, more accurately, I’m going to side with the claim that none of us, including Allen-Taylor, have the slightest clue as to whether the stop and the subsequent actions by OPD were justified. The Allen-Taylor line is that the ostensible reason for the stop (tags) belies the ‘real’ reason: a car full of black men in a crappy neighborhood. But a moment’s reflection and experience in Oakland is enough to tell us that this is a weak explanation. I personally couldn’t count how many four wheeled code violations filled with black men I see on a daily basis in exactly that neighborhood, passing OPD cruisers blithely by. Moreover, how many would have thought the stop and action unjustified if the officers had pulled an AK and a bag of the purple shit out of the car? But of course the officers’ justification would have to be the same in both cases–either you think they’d be justified in both cases or not.

    I’ll assume the Allen-Taylor line is ‘No. justified in neither case.’ So here’s the real reason none of is in a position to judge this. I have a good friend who’s a cop and I’ve gone on ride alongs with him. Has anyone here done this? I highly recommend it. Anyway, when the stop is made, info about the registered owner comes up on the officer’s on board computer. Included in that info (besides the obvious stuff about warrants and the like) is the ‘contacts’ if any, the registered owner has had with OPD. None of us good citizens may know this, but any time a citizen has a ‘contact’ with the PD, for example as a known suspect, or having been approached and questioned about crimes, etc., this information is taken and recorded. Here’s the totally dog bites man fact: the number of contacts with the PD is a remarkably reliable indicator of one’s involvement in crimes (shock). And to forestall an objection: this is not on the basis of still other ‘profiling’ action: it’s on the basis of the testimony of witnesses.

    So what we don’t know in this case is whether the officers in question had info about those in the car more than just there inability to maintain a legal vehicle and their race. They may well have and that is more than enough justification for their succeeding actions. Let’s not do an Allen-Taylor here of damning something we know little about pretending we know it all. That’s a job requirement for writing at the Daily Planet, but we’re all better than that.

  11. Deckin

    One more quick thing in response to Smoothe’s last point. She notes that being on probation or parole is a sufficient reason for a search but that doing that ‘hardly seems like a good use of limited police time’. If we extrapolate just from the stats on murder, that those on parole or probation arguably commit as much as 60 to 75 percent of the crimes in Oakland. Why it isn’t a good use of time to stop and search this pool of the population, as many times as the law allows, given the havoc they wreak, is lost on me. What else ought they to do? Wait for these parolees to commit the crime and then drive real fast to the location on the hopes of catching them? Haven’t we seen already that that approach is hopeless?

  12. V Smoothe Post author

    Deckin –

    And what percentage of those on parole are committing these crimes? That would seem to me a more useful statistic that the one you cite.

    In Los Angeles, for example, which reported a 37-year low in number of homicides last year, police don’t randomly pick cars to search in hopes of finding something illicit or some evidence of a crime (we also should remember, in our case, it is the District Attorney’s policy to not prosecute such cases, so there’s a serious question of the actual utility of even arresting someone for drug possession or such). They use constantly updated targeted data of crime patterns to flood problem areas with patrols. To me, the random traffic stop doesn’t seem any more likely to be productive than the already failed pattern you’re referring to. And since crime is up significantly this year over last, it clearly hasn’t proved to be an effective deterrent. If Oakland ever hopes to get crime under control, we need to look at best practices in other cities and model our strategies after them.

  13. Deckin

    Smoothe,

    You’re absolutely right that the percentage of parolees who commit crimes is a more relevant statistic than the percentage of crimes committed by parolees, assuming no other information is known. But that’s just what I was questioning. We don’t know if these guys were either themselves persons of interest in known crimes or perhaps associates of persons of interest. Also, if these chaps were indeed parolees then the stop wasn’t a ‘random’ one, at least by my definition of random. Again, absent some evidence from the cops, we just don’t know what the reasons for the stop were. Seeing guys lined up cuffed and then released, in and of itself, is really not sufficient to warrant claims of bias or even wasted resources.

  14. V Smoothe Post author

    Deckin –

    Well, my point wasn’t really that this or any other individual traffic stop is a bad use of time. The problem is with the concept of pulling people over when you can, searching them, and hoping something turns up as a crime reduction strategy, which Captain Toribio has said explicitly is his plan. This isn’t a strategy that cities around the country that have actually been successful in reducing crime are using, and that’s what I take issue with.

  15. Deckin

    Smoothe,

    I don’t know Toribo’s plan, in any detail, but my experience with actual cops is that whatever his plan may sound like (even if it’s as bald as ‘stop people at random’), that’s not how it will be implemented by cops on the street. Why? 1. As much as the Daily Planet would like to believe it’s so, cops actually don’t enjoy wasting theirs and others’ time by going to the trouble of cuffing people and then letting them go. 2. Whatever the dictates are from on top, there’s a massive amount of discretion left to the officers and they exercise considerable judgment in ‘lighting people up’. Any cop with any kind of experience has a fairly well developed sense of when something doesn’t seem right and they’ve been lied to enough to have a pretty good sense of when that’s happening. My guess is that in this and most cases, they use their discretion based on hunches which, while obviously fallible and imperfect, are a lot better than most of those who criticize them. I’d bet that something didn’t seem right in this case and they acted accordingly.

  16. V Smoothe Post author

    Deckin –

    So we should endorse a bad strategy from the top on the presumption that patrol officers will just ignore it? That hardly seems like good precedent.

  17. V Smoothe Post author

    Not during election season! But starting June 4th, no matter what happens, I’m hoping to not even look at this damn blog for a good week.

  18. jif

    Thank you Deckin! V – I generally agree with what you say, but I don’t know why this is being viewed as a bad strategy. I wonder if Mr. Allen-Taylor is assuming that some comment made by Capt. Toribio, when being grilled about some unrelated crime surge, was a committment to a particular crime strategy. And, frankly, any crime fighting strategy should never put all the proverbial eggs into one basket. Car stops are just one, of many, useful tools to be used. I find Allen-Taylor’s article suspect and unduly biased. He doesn’t know if the officers had prior contacts with all four occupants of the vehicle and knew them to be on probation and/or parole. Not an unheard of car stop in Oakland. He doesn’t know if the car stop was part of a larger crime-fighting strategy or one limited to a crime having just occurred. He doesn’t know if the officers had a rare moment of free time and stopped the car for the registration violation and discovered that all four occupants were on probation/parole. And just for info, four against two is not a tactically sound situation; therefore, handcuffing everyone is totally acceptable given certain circumstances. Since we do not know the probation/parole status of the driver/occupants of the vehicle I do not think anyone can question the appropriateness of the search. And the DA’s office does not have a blanket policy of not charging crimes that arise out of this type of car stop. Is it being suggested that if the officers had turned up a dead body in the trunk and the smoking gun under the seat that the DA’s office would say, “Sorry we can’t charge this case because you stopped the car for a registration violation.”? Allen-Taylor’s article is the typical rabble rousing junk that folks in Oakland eat for breakfast and then spew out later in the day during their alcohol and marijuana hazes to the officers who stop them by saying, “You can’t stop me! I didn’t do nothing! I know my rights!” Great!

  19. Deckin

    Smoothe,

    I wasn’t endorsing any policy, just the issue of the particular stop. The assumption that that stop is the result of that policy is also something I think needs proving. Again, we just have no idea why that particular car and its occupants were treated that way. As for the policy, randomly stopping people is a stupid idea, of course. However, making full use of the law and the known facts about crime patterns in Oakland seems like perfect sense to me. What else should the police do? It’s as obvious as the day is long that any car stopped in West Oakland has a greater likelihood of containing a criminal than a car stopped in Piedmont. Wishing it weren’t so doesn’t make it so. Now if you add in additional information about vehicle code infractions and who knows what came up on the screens of the cops in question, you’ve no doubt increased the likelihood again by a significant factor. Should police ignore these facts and simply wait for crime to happen and hope to be in the right place at the right time? Organize more after hours sports leagues? As you yourself noted, it’s not like strategies like this haven’t proved their worth in other areas–NYC.

    Any cop will tell you that, by and large, they have a pretty good hunch as to who has committed the crime, for a large chunk of crimes committed. They know this on the basis of talking to people who really do know but who, for lots and lots of reasons, won’t testify or cooperate formally with the police. Given that, vehicle code violations and other crimes that ‘come with their own evidence’ are about the only means they have to get criminals off the streets. Want to know why we have so many drug offenders in prisons? Easy. Those possession crimes are air tight and easy to convict on and are likely the only way to get people whom the police have good reason to suspect in other crimes off the streets. The police have to use tools and stopping people in areas known for crime with clear cut code violations is one of them. If more people would snitch, you probably wouldn’t have Toribo trying these policies out. Again, the question: what else should the police do?

  20. avis

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with this policy. As long as the cops don’t hurt anyone and don’t plant any evidence this seems OK to me. A while back I was stopped in a routine traffic stop (someone had stolen my license plate and I didn’t even know) and the officer was firm, but very polite to me. He pointed out that I was driving around illegally without a license plate, I assured him I had no idea it was gone and that was the end of it.

    Oakland seems to have a very negative attitue about the OPD, but I must say I have never had a problem with them. Earlier this year when they came to bust the Oaktown Crips on my block they were a lot nicer than my neighbors and I would have been. The cop on the bullhorn said “come out with your hands up, we don’t want to hurt you”. In the background I could hear several neighbors yelling “hurt them, hurt them.” Maybe not the most humane response from the neighbors, but after almost 2 years of their drugs, guns and intimidation it was certainly understandable. I say GO OPD!

  21. Pete Kaplan

    “Taylor’s correct that the practice is dehumanizing, and that’s reason enough to be concerned about it.”

    Next he will be comparing the Oakland police to the Nazis.

  22. len raphael

    Pre NSA, my understanding is that stopping and frisking pedestrians who appeared to be carrying handguns was highly productive.

    Thought it was initally implemented widely by NYPD about 20 years ago?

    OPD unofficially stopped routine stop and frisks because of chilling (or some would call civil right protecting) effect of the NSA on the amount of time cops have to devote to dealing with every complaint of misconduct.

    Interesting to hear news report that retired but still on our case, Judge Henderson, announcing he was angered to hear reports that OPD was not agressivesly policing because of the NSA.

    What planet does he live on, to think the NSA would not have that effect?

    Maybe Torribo’s plan is just a way to placate the good Judge.