Seattle Police Department’s interim-chief Adrian Diaz announced sweeping new policies that ban many non-criminal traffic stops. The move is framed around equity concerns, with the chief arguing that because not everyone can afford to pay the traffic violation fines, they must not be enforced. But all this does is make it easier for car thieves to continue to prey on Seattleites.
Under the new policies, SPD will no longer treat several violations as the primary reason to engage in a traffic stop. They include expired or missing registration, which is sometimes a clue that a car is stolen.
The move comes months after the Seattle Inspector General claimed police pose a risk to Black drivers they pull over. In fact, the original proposal would have banned all traffic stops but the police union successfully pushed back.
Still, it’s the latest blow to officer morale and a boon to car thieves who are already running rampant throughout the city.
Equity concerns behind the new policy
Diaz made the announcement in a Friday afternoon email to staff. According to the memo, officers may not pull motorists over for the following violations:
Expired or missing vehicle registration (Title: License and plates required)- SMC 11.22.070
Issues with the display of registration plates (Title: Vehicle license plates displayed) – SMC 11.22.080
Technical violations of SMC 11.84.140, such as items hanging from the rear-view mirror and cracks in the windshield. Actual visual obstruction, such as snow, fog, non-transparent, material, or shattered windshields, will be enforced – (Title: Windshield obstruction) – SMC 11.84.140
Bicycle helmet violations (KCHC 9.10)
Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge originally proposed a total ban on traffic stops in a May 2021 memo.
“If we stopped conducting traffic stops for all traffic violations in the city, doing so would have catastrophic impacts to our community’s public safety interests,” Seattle Police Officers Guild president Mike Solan told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “Moreover, if you were to compare today’s decision to what Inspector Judge first publicly said in May, today’s decision is a reasonable approach. Having said this, this decision will still have negative impacts to our community’s public safety interests and still supports the preposterous notion that police still engage in bias policing with traffic stops.”
It could have been worse — but it may soon be
A source with close knowledge of the negotiations around these policies says the Seattle Police Officers Guild pushed back forcibly, arguing it would be a lawless free-for-all.
In the end, SPOG was successful in stopping Judge’s most extreme policy goal from moving forward. Still, there is a belief this may only be a short-term win with Judge allowing the less-extreme policy to move forward before reintroducing a total ban.
Chief Diaz is choosing to frame the move around equity concerns, turning a public safety issue into one about social justice.
“We know there are concerns about if these violations disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet financial demands,” Diaz writes.
His reasoning makes no sense. It hides what the move is truly about.
The illogical argument
By Diaz’s logic, of course, most laws would soon be deemed unenforceable. He’s arguing that if someone cannot afford to pay a fine for breaking the law, the law should not be enforced.
But in the same memo, Diaz says these violations “can still be enforced, if there was another primary violation.”
In other words, a motorist can’t afford one non-criminal traffic fine when no other primary violation occurs. But they can and should be forced to pay it when a different primary violation is noticed?
If the logic is strained, it’s because it is. Though there is an activist belief that low-income lawbreakers shouldn’t have to pay fines, the impetus for this move is the dangerous and shameful belief that cops are racist and will hurt Black motorists.
Policy change comes from anti-police viewpoint
These policies came from a working group convened by Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, at the behest of Diaz. Judge is a progressive activist who doesn’t trust police officers.
In May 2021, Judge called on Diaz to end all low-level traffic stops because they are, she argues, especially dangerous for Black motorists.
“Without drilling down to underlying issues and root causes, police and community are destined to continue the same cycle of traffic stops gone wrong,” Judge wrote. “To that end, the issue of what and how conduct should be policed is perhaps as important as other root causes, such as institutional racism and subconscious bias. For safety of both officers and the public and for racial fairness, SPD should seek to eliminate routine traffic stops for civil and non-dangerous violations.”
While Judge implied these deadly traffic problems are frequent, she could only cite one local example. But it involved a suspect who fled from police, and then went for a gun before officers shot and killed him. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the city watchdog group.
“SPOG pushed back against this as the ultimate purveyor of what constitutional policing looks like is the Department of Justice. In fact, DOJ told our community that the Seattle Police Department has met all accountability benchmarks of reform and one of those important benchmarks was bias policing,” SPOG President Mike Solan told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “How can Inspector Judge say that we, as Seattle police officers, are still conducting disproportional traffic enforcement against persons of color? If we were doing so, then wouldn’t the DOJ intervene? What an incredible insult.”
This policy emboldens criminals
This new policy is dangerous and will make it easier for criminals to operate. Of particular concern to officers? Car thieves.
“That’s exactly what our main concern is. Auto theft is off the rails and they switch plates all the time or take them off and make fake temporary tags,” one officer tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.
A second officer reached out to the Jason Rantz Show with concerns, too.
“Right off the top of my head, anybody who has kidnapped a child and takes their license plates off… or they have a matching vehicle for a bank robbery and they’ve taken the license plates off… we’re not going to be able to stop them,” the officer said. “And the criminals already take the license plates off of stolen cars to go commit other crimes like armed robberies and carjackings.”
What’s worse, thanks to statewide police reform bills, police can only detain suspects with probable cause. The previous standard was reasonable suspicion. For example, if an officer suspects a car is stolen due to missing registration, a suspicious-looking driver, and even a bullet hole in a windshield, they couldn’t detain the motorist because it wouldn’t meet probable cause.
“I can’t tell you how many gangsters have cars that were shot up three weeks ago, but has nothing to do with a current crime,” a third officer noted, expressing concerns that reasonable suspicion can no longer be used for a traffic stop.
More is expected to come
Since this new policy comes from Judge’s recommendations, morale will take another hit within the SPD, one officer tells me. Her recommendations stem from a belief they’re too racist to police safely. And Diaz went along with it.
The chief’s position may earn him some points with new Mayor Bruce Harrell, but it is hurting his standing with officers who view this as another attack on their jobs. The SPD is already losing historic numbers of officers.
“Police officers are fantastic human beings that want to serve… we are willing to give our life in that service,” SPOG president Solan noted. “Negative contacts with members in our community can almost be eradicated if people would comply with a police officer’s lawful detention… We are professional servants who support full accountability and we are proud to work for the most progressive and accountable police department in the nation. Removing traffic enforcement from police is the wrong path for our community’s public safety interests as Seattle is worth saving.”
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