I could scarcely believe my eyes when I examined the City of Austin's most recent racial profiling report (pdf, published 3-2-09), and read that the number of traffic stops increased to 230,949 in 2008 from only 178,087 in 2007. Reasons given in the report for the increase were:
- patrol being near full staffing;
- the motors officers stopped taking routine calls for service and went back to working traffic enforcement full time;
- CompStat implementation that assigned officers to traffic enforcement in crime hotspots to increase visibility and proximity to crimes; and
- the Home for the Holidays initiative that added over 4,000 additional hours of sworn working on traffic enforcement.
Though officials will certainly claim the reason is public safety, it's hard not to suspect that revenue generation must be at least part of the motive.
Another eye-popping figure: The number of consent searches at traffic stops increased a whopping 106%, but that figure is deceptive because the overall numbers were small. In 2007, APD conducted just 211 searches, while in 2008 the number jumped to 435. The number of "consent searches" in Austin has been much lower in recent years after the agency implemented a policy of requiring written consent if an officer didn't have probable cause to search.
Still 106% is far beyond a statistically significant increase. My hypothesis to explain it (more in-depth research would be required to tell for sure): The jump is likely attributable to the CompStat tactic described in #3 above of over-enforcing traffic laws in violent crime hotspots. After all, this approach presumes that these are really "pretext stops," that the real purpose of pulling people over is as an excuse to look for evidence of other crimes.
In the big picture, though, the vast majority of Austin police searches at traffic stops in 2008 - 11,637 of them, to be exact - were "non-consent" searches. Of those, 15.8% were based on safety frisks, 38.9% were incidental to arrest, and 25.6% were based on probable cause.
In 2008, Austin PD arrested someone at more than one out of every 20 traffic stops - at 11,353 traffic stops in 2008 representing 5.3% of all APD traffic stops. The top three reasons for arrests:
- 5,388 for outstanding warrants.
- 3,486 because the driver was intoxicated.
- 1,002 because the driver was in possession of illegal drugs.
An additional 2,740 stops could have resulted in arrest, but the officers used their discretion to write a "field release citation" instead, which reduced considerably the number of new entrants to jail.
Pedestrian stops by APD also increased by 29% from 2007 to 2008, to 18,111. In this area, the use of "field release citations" was especially pronounced - the procedure was used 7,673 times, or in 42.4% of all pedestrian stops. An additional 20.7% of pedestrian stops (3,742) resulted in a custody arrest.
A 30% increase in traffic stops seems hard to justify. Sure, it helps fill the city coffers, but there's an opportunity cost: What other areas are being understaffed while APD officers write 30% more tickets or play the role of bill collector/enforcer for outstanding traffic fines?