The killing of Tyre Nichols underscores the violence involved in traffic stops. He joins Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Philando Castile and many others who were killed Driving While Black. In 2022, U.S. police killed 86 people in traffic stops and over 600 – predominantly Black – since 2017, according to MappingPoliceViolence.us. We still have a higher rate of police killings than other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations combined, where Black people are over three times as likely to be the victim.
In Berkeley, we have been deeply engaged in police reform efforts, including an independent Police Accountability Board, fair and impartial policing policies to restrict pretextual stops, and the Department of Transportation, also known as BerkDOT. Our effort has not been fruitless. According to the city’s data, use of force by the Berkeley Police Department was down 30% year-over-year as of Feb. 1, and officer-initiated traffic stops fell by 50% in 2020. I’m optimistic that continued implementation will further reduce disparities.
Although some aspects of BerkDOT require state law changes, there is a clear and urgent need for equitable civilian and automated enforcement combined with engineering streets to be safe and self-enforcing.
Berkeley activist Darrell Owens recently wrote: “… provided cars kill as many people as guns in this country, there will always be popular demand for traffic cops.” As a Transportation Commissioner, I strongly supported Vision Zero policies to end traffic fatalities. The Vision Zero framework commits to leading with engineering solutions first and using enforcement as a last resort after engineering and education efforts have been exhausted.
What do engineering-first solutions to road safety look like? In the near term, it includes projects like Broadway bus lanes in Downtown Oakland and safer crosswalks at Lake Merritt BART. It also means committing to fully fund and implement Complete Streets projects for safe, multi-modal connectivity to schools, parks, shops and other local destinations. Historically, this hasn’t gone over well with those whose priority for open road space is parking. However, surveys consistently show that retailers overestimate customers’ car trips and underestimate the economic benefits of other mode shares.
Berkeley should follow the city of Oakland’s lead in progressive transportation policies, such as the Equity Paving Plan included as part of the 2018 Measure KK Infrastructure Bond and expanding pedestrian and cyclist safety projects. Projects identified in Berkeley’s Bicycle Plan should be fully funded and implemented, like the forthcoming Soutsouthside Complete Streets and new bike boulevards in District 2. If the road to justice and safety requires the reclamation of space from private automobiles and dedicating remaining spaces to automobile-reliant persons with disabilities, that is a road we must take.
I’m hopeful that as we invest in safe infrastructure, our community will realize its many benefits, and the battle against status-quo inertia will ease. That said, enforcement will continue to be part of the solution. I support automating traffic enforcement through technology while maintaining strong privacy protections and data controls. Driving is a dangerous and thus highly regulated activity in the public right-of-way with a set of rules licensed drivers must agree to follow.
It should not be controversial for California to join the rest of the developed world in using red light cameras, automated license plate readers and legalizing speed cameras to enforce the social contract on our roads. But that doesn’t let us off the hook for guaranteeing road safety by engineering first, even if that means prioritizing the public right of way for mobility instead of vehicle storage.
Reimagining public safety also means reimagining our built environment to be more mobility-inclusive and free from violent interaction. May Tyre Nichols rest in peace, and may the rest of us keep fighting for peace in our lifetimes.
Terry Taplin is the city of Berkeley’s District 2 council member and the Public Safety Policy Committee chair.