Several sheriff vehicles park on Pine Street in Downtown Seattle next to the light rail station.
PIne Street north of Third Avenue in Downtown Seattle used to function as a police parking lot, but now it's a pocket park and protected bike lane.

As the Seattle City Council voted to trim its 1400-strong sworn police force by 100 officers, critics suggested crime would increase. Some armchair criminologists asked why not cut the police force to zero if there’s no relationship between police and crime?

Rather than signal an intent to join the police abolition movement, this argument was meant to convey the ridiculousness of reducing the police force–and Seattle hasn’t laid off a single police officer since the 1890’s. But what does the evidence actually say? What actually causes crime and what is likely to address those root causes?

Decriminalize Seattle has been adamant that investing in alleviating poverty and building up marginalized communities of color would be much more effective that investing in more police, jails, and prisons. The Urbanist has signed on to the Defund SPD by 50% movement because we find that analysis much more convincing than arguments that say “let’s get even tougher on crime; it will solve the problem this time.”

To the root causes of racism, poverty, and environmental degradation, I would add car dependence. These four roots are tangled together and rotting and stunting the growth of our tree. With healthy roots, Seattle can grow into a majectic Douglas fir, but our root rot will kill the tree unless we act.

Proliferation of cars and police

As urbanists, we are very aware of the impact that the unchecked proliferation of automobiles had in shaping out cities–primarily for the worse. Policing is no different. Traffic enforcement is often the largest and costliest endeavor for police departments. Traffic stops have also been the site of many police killings of Black people.

Sarah Seo, who wrote Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, pointed to the example of Sandra Bland, who died in jail three days after a Texas state trooper tased and brutalized her during a traffic stop, to illustrate how traffic stops have become the primary site of our interaction with police, especially and disproportionately for Black people.

The automobile appeared in nearly every significant setback in Bland’s life. Exorbitant traffic tickets that Bland paid for by “sitting out” in jail. Convictions for driving under the influence and arrest warrants for unpaid traffic fines that severely limited her employment options. Charges for possessing marijuana—her lawyer suspected that Bland was self-medicating—that the police discovered in her car. In Bland’s life, the automobile played a prominent role as a site of violence, poverty, and discrimination.

Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, excerpt published in Boston Review

The number of police exploded right as the automobiles did, too. Police forces ballooned from 1910 to 1930 right as the Model T was taking off and automobiles were sweeping the nation. “[O]ne early report indicated that in the sixteen smallest states, the number of officers as a percentage of the population nearly doubled from 1910 to 1930,” Seo wrote.

One reason is that Americans crash their cars a lot. Still to this day car crashes kill about 40,000 people per year even with all our modern advancements in safety technology and regulations. The danger automobiles present has been used time and again as a justification for over-policing. Nearly every motorist occasionally (and for some routinely) speeds and disregard traffic laws, such as those against rolling through stop signs or distracted driving, so cops have an excuse to pull over just about anyone. Given the racism baked into our institutions of policing, law, and transportation planning, the people stopped and punished are overwhelming Black and brown. Even when motorists are closely following traffic laws, America’s “War on Drugs” added vehicle checkpoints for random searches into the police arsenal.

Without intervening laws, stops can also lead to police chases, which are often deadly not just for those directly involved—car crashes are one of the biggest hazards to police responsible for one third of line-of-duty deaths–but also for bystanders. Police chases have killed more than 5,000 thousand bystanders since 1979 according to a USA Today analysis.

For example, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014–the year Ferguson police murdered Michael Brown–the majority of cases in municipal court were traffic cases, and the Department of Justice’s investigation found “a pattern of unconstitutional policing” that skewed on racial lines, Seo noted.

Car pollution linked to crime

Beyond the direct carnage, the proliferation of cars bathed cities in a cloud of pollution–and that pollution included toxic lead compounds since cars ran on leaded gasoline until the Clean Air Act of 1970 began to slowly phase it out.

A wide body of research suggests the huge spike in violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s that suddenly and unexpectedly dropped in the 1990s is linked the effects of lead poisoning on young children during the leaded age. The generation that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s experienced much lower rates of lead poisoning thanks to phase out of leaded gas through enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

Despite all of the government’s heavy-handed policing and crime prevention efforts, it may have been the Clean Air Act that made the biggest difference in curbing violent crime by greatly reducing an environmental risk factor. We should think on that as we contemplate where sustainable public housing, electric buses and trains, climate justice, and environmental cleanup efforts rank versus policing and prisons in our spending priorities.

Research on policing

Some researchers have also sought to demonstrate the efficacy at policing at driving down crime rates. However, it appears the effect, insofar as it exists, is extremely localized to the immediate block where police are posted, according to a widely cited 2004 empirical study. Thefts go down on the block where police were posted, but they may actually go up elsewhere. Plus, the authors analysis finds the cost of posting the police officers is much greater than cost of the thefts to businesses and residents.

Furthermore, the statistics do not support the proposition that the number of police we have right now is the optimal level or that increasing is likely to help solve more crimes. That’s because the clearance rate hasn’t improved in 30 years despite more police with more resources tasked with solving fewer crimes.

John Roman underscores this pattern in his excellent overview “Why Criminal Justice Reform Needs to Think Big.” “Per capita, there are half as many crimes to investigate today as there were in 1990, and there are about the same number of sworn law enforcement officers per capita (more if you throw in the rapidly growing federal forces, but let’s not),” he wrote. “But even with fewer crimes to solve, the clearance rate hasn’t gone up at all in 30 years and most crimes remain unsolved.”

Much of the policing research starts from a faulty frame by seeking to link additional police officers to the deterrence effect which is assumed to be a public good without actually being one–and without considering the counterfactual of shrinking police forces or the weighing the negative effects of deterrence. Public good is an economic term that requires a good to be non-rival and non-excludable and police forces fail both categories given how differently Black people and communities are policed from from White communities.

“The statistical models of most serious economic scholarship and most serious empirical legal scholarship seek to parameterize the marginal deterrent effect of adding another police officer,” Roman writes. “And, by the way, these papers always study adding an officer, never subtracting one, and when they do consider what would happen if a department shrinks, they assume perfect symmetry—whatever gains were made from adding an officer (which is studied) are assumed to be lost by removing one (which is not studied).”

It’s not a bad apples problem, but a too many apples problem, he argues. New research out of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Criminology backs the claim by showing that most use of force complaints in Chicago can’t be traced to a few bad apple officers. It’s a systemic and structural problem which weeding out a couple bad apples won’t fix.

Deterrence is what police departments point to as their key contribution when they can’t point to as improving clearance rates. Except the currency here is fear, which inherently comes with a social cost and is antithetical to community policing that is supposed to build trust. Unless deterrence is wielded lightly and surgically, it will undermine community policing, which is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of a reformed police force.

Traffic cameras and street redesigns

So, to save policing from itself, we must shrink police forces rather than endlessly expand and further weaponize them. One way to lessen the role of the cop is to replace traffic stops with civilian forces and traffic camera enforcement, as Roman also endorsed in an earlier article. Camera enforcement will remove officer bias from the equation, and a sliding scale for penalties could make its impact more equitable with respect to low-income populations.

Seattle has the newfound authority to do camera enforcement pilot thanks to a new legislation passed in Olympia. SDOT noted during a presentation to the Seattle City Council yesterday that they aimed to roll that out in the fall.

It’s not just enforcement, but street design that can lower the need for traffic enforcement. Slow streets–where people walking, rolling, biking, and riding transit are prioritized and people driving have cues and road obstacles to ensure they do not speed–can nearly eliminate the risk of violent collisions and thus the need for traffic enforcement. As with police officers and public safety, fewer cars makes the whole transportation work better. So let’s build the system we want rather than the faulty one we inherited.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.