Does Traffic Enforcement Reduce Crime?

By Harris, Wesley | Law & Order, May 1999 | Go to article overview
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Does Traffic Enforcement Reduce Crime?


Harris, Wesley, Law & Order


Criminality is a lifestyle. While most of society feels an obligation to pay taxes, obey the law and expects the same of others, some people live to commit crimes.

An armed robber who finds pleasure in shooting his victims in the legs has little regard for other laws. This is called "cognitive consistency." People who commit serious crimes like robbery or drug trafficking find it inconsistent with their lifestyles to obey mundane traffic laws.

Traffic violations mean little to someone driving a car full of drugs or stolen merchandise. Career criminals are often incredulous when stopped for red light or speeding violations because they commit worse offenses on a regular basis.

In many departments, officers either work "traffic" or deal with "real crime." One agency tried to reduce its burglaries by decreasing traffic enforcement and relying more on passive patrol of affected residential areas. But statistics revealed that when the department was most active in traffic enforcement, the burglary rate was at its lowest.

Many rural sheriff's departments do not practice aggressive traffic enforcement, some because of a lack of staffing, some for political reasons. Yet, burglars in secluded areas require transportation.

A study in Grand Prairie, Texas revealed 28% of the city's criminal arrests, including burglary, robbery and murder, were made by officers assigned to traffic enforcement. In many communities, most drug arrests start out as traffic violations. Bomber Timothy McVeigh was caught by a state trooper who observed a traffic offense.

Does aggressive traffic enforcement have a place in reducing street crime? Chasing speeders on the freeway may not affect your crime rate, but some agencies swear the right kind of traffic enforcement can.

The earliest formal studies on the effects of aggressive patrol and enforcement occurred in the 1970's. In response to criticism of the well-known Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, Wilson and Boland (1978) developed a model predicting the use of aggressive patrol would reduce crime. To support their model, the researchers examined robbery rates in 35 large US cities and found they were lower in the cities where more traffic citations were written-their measure of aggressive policing. Despite criticism of the measuring stick used, similar research by Sampson and Cohen (1988) supported the model. A 1993 study (Weiss, et al) showed no correlation between traffic enforcement and crime reduction but even the researchers recognized flaws in their methods may have concealed such a relationship.

Peoria, Illinois

In 1991, Peoria, Illinois went to what a later chief would call a "friendly, community-oriented policing style." Traffic enforcement was reduced and even the officers' evaluation form was modified so traffic enforcement was no longer a performance issue.

Many departments adopting community policing strategies forget that tried and true crime fighting and enforcing are still essential. COP is not a public relations tool-its purpose is not to make people feel good about the police. It is a philosophy about how the police and the public must work together to fight crime and resolve other public safety issues. Agencies that believe community policing is "shaking hands and kissing babies" often discover their tactics are ineffective against rising crime.

In just the first year of Peoria's new style of policing, crime increased, calls for service rose 12% and self-initiated activity by officers dropped 25%. By 1994, it was obvious a change was needed so Peoria conducted citizen surveys and reassessed its operations. Speeding and other traffic violations were named as big concerns by citizens.

Emphasis was again placed on selfinitiated activity by officers and a shift was made from public relations to true community policing. During the next year, self-initiated activity was up 14%, citations up 16%, and crime fell by 6%.

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