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Opinion | It Is Possible to Reform the Police

In the state of Washington, however, pretextual stops were banned in 1999 when the state Supreme Court ruled that such stops violated Washington’s constitution — before changing its mind in a 2012 case, State v. Arreola. This gave the legal scholar Stephen Rushin and the economist Griffin Edwards an opening. They compared stops made by the Washington State Patrol in the period when pretextual stops were disallowed to those made after the Arreola decision. Sure enough, racial disparities rose significantly when troopers were given the legal authority to stop drivers on pretext. Vague suspicions turn out to be a prime outlet for bias.

If state legislatures and police departments nationwide were to prohibit pretextual vehicle stops, with the prohibition taken seriously in police training, organizational culture and disciplinary procedures, police officers would be blocked from acting on some of their worst instincts. Banning pretextual stops would free officers to focus their attention on serious traffic safety violations or on stops based on more than a hunch of criminality — a better use of police resources. Since random pretextual stops rarely turn up evidence of serious crime, the effect on crime rates would most likely be minimal, just as the end of “stop and frisk” in New York City did not increase crime there.

A second strategy would be to require written consent when an officer asks permission to search a driver’s car. (If the officer has probable cause, no consent is needed.) Starting in 2012, three cities in North Carolina — Fayetteville, and later Durham and Chapel Hill — instituted policies, with varying degrees of commitment, requiring written rather than verbal consent. Three political scientists — Frank Baumgartner, Derek Epp and Kelsey Shoub — examined what happened as a result: The number of cars searched following a traffic stop dropped precipitously.

The reason is simple. Written consent forms explain to motorists what their rights are, giving some of them the courage to tell the police no. This changes the incentive structure for police officers looking to stop cars as part of a fishing expedition for contraband.

By themselves, written consent forms won’t eliminate racial disparities in traffic stops. The police department in Austin, Texas, for example, has used these forms since 2012 and continues to stop Black drivers disproportionately. But by reducing the frequency of vehicle searches, consent forms make the experience of being stopped less onerous. It’s one thing to be pulled over and ticketed, quite another to have your car rifled through.

A third reform has even more potential. Police departments these days are under considerable pressure to track racial disparities in their operations. Yet little is done with this information.

Research by the sociologist Emilio Castilla on how to achieve greater gender and racial equity in employee pay shows that if you want to move an organization away from biased practices, transparency and accountability are key. If everyone in a company knows how well each of its different units is faring on diversity and equity metrics, managers will be motivated to make sure that their own unit doesn’t fall behind.

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