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.