Don’t tell that to the residents of Carrollton, Canton, Fairlington, Lake Victoria, Q Street and other populous neighborhoods in Washington. They have been subjected to an unusually heavy burden of traffic stops over the past year.
It’s a heavy burden that arises from two related forces: better policing technology, and more street crime. For police officers, this dynamic is not complicated.
They have a squad car equipped with a vehicle identification number or VIN. VINs are emitted by cars at random intervals. It is their responsibility to track down the car in question and the driver involved in its whereabouts.
If that vehicle turns up in a crime scene, the police officer goes to arrest the driver. If there is a felony involved, then the officer proceeds to charge the owner. This scenario is repeated for each of the seven cars in each squad car.
The police have to arrest each and every one of these cars. It costs money, and so the police are forced to hustle traffic stops, diverting police officers from crime in their neighborhoods.
This is the situation that has created an intolerable strain on officers with little reason to believe that such burdens are commensurate with the punishment meted out for the offenses: misdemeanors for violations as mild as expired tags and small amounts of marijuana.
In this instance, it is official policy to stop every car every other month to determine whether the number on the dashboard matches the number from the Pennsylvania plates. In a big city, that is a pretty reliable search.
Yet in other communities, they encounter vehicles with stolen Pennsylvania plates and Indiana plates that turn up in crime scenes. The officers in these communities have a hard time adjusting to the fact that they must investigate every car.
Despite some effort, they are rarely able to track down a decoy vehicle. For the officer, this is a chicken-and-egg situation. He can’t go any further until he knows what happened at the first vehicle, but at the same time the law enforcement authorities in the city are doing as little as possible to make him aware of their efforts.
It is inexcusable that after the system is properly functioning, the police must scramble to fix something that the government wishes to do.
There is some relief on the horizon for two reasons.
First, the Pennsylvania tags could end up in other states such as Tennessee, which happens to be adjacent to Maryland. Each time that happens, the demand for traffic stops will drop.
Second, law enforcement officials here in Washington acknowledge that the number of violent crimes is declining. If this is the case, why isn’t that reflected in the number of traffic stops?
This year, Lt. Charles Pezzullo of the Prince George’s County police said, police have found 20 percent fewer actual bombs than they have in previous years. In other words, there has been a significant drop in the number of violent crimes. Yet there has been a commensurate increase in traffic stops.
Might it be that the big increase in traffic stops is the result of changes in Maryland law passed in the 2010 General Assembly, which were intended to reduce criminal offenses in the county?
Might it be that the General Assembly was less successful in reducing violent crimes this year than in its last?
The new measures would have the effect of giving people more freedom to travel in local areas than before, rather than encouraging fewer crimes and less traffic.
— David Chance
David Chance is executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund in Washington. He may be contacted at [email protected]