Reimagining: Police Traffic Stops; Safer with Drones
Can we imagine a better way to do Police Traffic Stops?
Short answer: Yes! Use “Traffic Stops via Zoom” or drones with video speakerphones.
THE ISSUE: Traffics stops are unnecessarily dangerous and tense for the police and the driver being stopped.
EVIDENCE OF ISSUE:
The 2016 killing of Philando Castille and the 2021 pepper spraying of an Army Officer are just two examples of traffic stops that have gone badly for the drivers. In these cases, drivers who were people of color.
But traffic stops are also dangerous situations for police officers. The vast majority of people stopped are not going to engage in violence, but some will. What if they have a gun? What if they attack me? And, so, police officers need to keep their guard up.
Or do they?
Reimagining Police Traffic Stops
The essential elements of a traffic stop can be put into four elements:
- Getting documents from the driver (license, registration, insurance).
- Visually inspecting the driver and the car.
- Speaking with the driver.
- Other stuff / additional investigation.
THE IDEA: Instead of an officer getting out of the vehicle, walking to the car, and physically speaking with the driver, 21st century technology can be used. Two methods hold the biggest potential: (1) using videoconferencing (and digital communication) and (2) using drones.
VIDEOCONFERENCING: Videoconferencing is most easily thought of as “Traffic Stop via Zoom”. The driver takes out their cell phone and connects to the officer. At the same time, supervisors or support staff at the police precinct are also on the secure call. (A “group” call). Officer says, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” and other phrases. Driver shows the license, registration, and insurance via the phone. If enabled, these might be digitally sent to the police station.
The most important thing is that both people are not in any physical danger. Officers don’t have to expose themselves to danger. And drivers don’t have to worry about a “misunderstanding”. Like: when and how is the right way to reach for a wallet that might be in a backpack? And how to make sure the officer doesn’t legitimately or illegitimately say, “I thought I saw a gun”.
Importantly, the officer always has a right to go to the vehicle and conduct a standard, in-person traffic stop. But they don’t have to.
DRONES: Like in a sci-fi movie, a tiny drone launches from a small box on the side of the squad car. It is automatically piloted and lands on the hood of the car. Or, if you want to be fancy, it can land in the passenger seat. The drone has a “speakerphone” in addition to a video camera. The rest of the traffic stop is the same as a “Traffic Stop via Zoom”.
One difference is that the officer (or someone at the police station) operates the camera. So the camera can “look around” independently. The camera on the phone is controlled by the driver, who might purposefully not let you see the backseat. Furthermore, the “Drone Stop” doesn’t require the driver to have a smartphone or internet access.
Drones, nowadays, are used to inspect industrial facilities and to scan and map out indoor buildings. So, having a drone programmed to fly to a car is not a huge technical challenge.
The two methods (videoconference and drones) can be used complementarily. It might start out as videoconference, but then a drone is added. And then, an officer might approach the car directly.
Winning for the Officers
Importantly, this can be sold 100% based on the benefits to the officer.
For the officer, the number one benefit is safety. They are no longer approaching the car with no knowledge of who is driving the car. And, there is a second set of eyes and ears if the video is simultaneously shared with the precinct.
The number two benefit is speed. The vast majority of traffic stops could be cut down to less than 5 minutes. The citation/ticket could be sent digitally. The officer doesn’t have to wait to scan the license plate and assess the situation.
A third benefit is convenience. A lot of traffic stops may not even need the officer to leave the car. In rainy or cold or nighttime situations, this might be a nice added benefit. Not enough to justify the technology by itself, but a nice bonus for the rank-and-file.
Winning for the Drivers
For the driver, the number one benefit is safety and reduced worry. I group the two, because I do think that most people (including people of color) actually need to be afraid of most police officers. Most police officers are good, but “most” is not enough. If I have my insurance in the glove box of an old car, and I have a twitchy/mean police officer, I’m going to be very afraid of making them think I have a weapon in the glove box. But, if I’m conversing with them via my phone, there is no potential misunderstanding of threat for either of us. So, drivers need to worry less.
The number two benefit is protecting civil liberties. How? There is a camera recording everything that is happening. Even if the officer approaches, the drone or camera will continue to record. So this means that there is a good third party record of the traffic stop. And all parties know this. So, if a police officer OR a driver wants to make something up, there is a way to know.
Note: Body cameras worn by police have increased dramatically, but the policies for their use are not uniform. Some departments allow officers to turn off their cameras without a reason. Some don’t have adequate protections for making sure footage isn’t tampered with. And many allow officers to view the recording before making a statement, but may not allow the same for public citizens.
There may be other benefits. In particular, I can see the potential for having these videos archived and reviewed by courts, police organizations, or city government. One could use this to validate that professional standards are upheld and to give feedback to officers for de-escalation. If we could compare traffic stops from every county in the country, we could start seeing clearly the disparities of how people are treated, best practices, and how to avoid deadly misunderstandings.