Unbundle the Police

Why do we need heavily armed men to issue a traffic citation?

It’s an unacknowledged peculiarity that police are in charge of road safety. Why should the arm of the state that investigates murder, rape, and robbery also give out traffic tickets? Traffic stops are the most common reason for contact with the police. I (allegedly) rolled through a stop sign in the neighborhood and was stopped. It was uncomfortable—hands on the wheel, don’t make any sudden moves, be polite, etc. and I am a white guy. Traffic stops can be much more uncomfortable for minorities, which makes the police uncomfortable. Many of the police homicides, such as the killing of Philando Castile happened at ordinary traffic stops. But why do we need heavily armed men (mostly) to issue a traffic citation?

Don’t use a hammer if you don’t need to pound a nail. Road safety does not require a hammer. The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by an unarmed agency. Put the safety patrol in bright yellow cars and have them carry a bit of extra gasoline and jumper cables to help stranded motorists as part of their job–make road safety nice. Highways England hires traffic officers for some of these tasks (although they are not yet authorized to issue speeding tickets).

Similarly, the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless—jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies. Notice that we have lots of other safety issues that are not handled by the police. Restaurant inspectors, for example, do over a million restaurant inspectors annually but they don’t investigate murder or drug charges and they are not armed. Perhaps not coincidentally, restaurant inspectors are not often accused of inspector brutality, “Your honor, I swear I thought he was reaching for a knife….”.

Another advantage of turning over road safety to an unarmed, non-police unit would be to help restore the fourth amendment which has been destroyed by the jurisprudence of traffic stops.

As we move to self-driving vehicles it will become obvious that road safety does not belong with the police (eventually it will be more like air traffic control). We can get a jump start on that trend by more carefully delineating which police duties require the threat of imminent violence and which do not.

Defunding the police, whatever that means, is a political non-starter. But we can unbundle the police.

This article was reprinted from Marginal Revolution.