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The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops

The Virginia grants are a fraction of the roughly $600 million that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sends to states each year. Lucia Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, said it did not encourage or require quotas or targets for grant recipients.

But a review of state grant applications found that the number of traffic stops is a common performance measure. In Arkansas, for instance, the goal was “three vehicle stops per hour” during grant-funded patrols, while in Madison, S.D., officers were required to “obtain two citations per grant hour.”

Indiana officials boasted in their 2014 annual report that officers enforcing seatbelt laws averaged 3.26 stops per hour. One was in Hammond, where an officer on grant-funded patrol pulled over a Black family and ended up in a dispute with a passenger, Jamal Jones, after demanding he identify himself. Video shows officers smashing a car window and firing a Taser at Mr. Jones, who, according to a lawsuit he later filed, tried to retrieve a document to use for identification.

It was a traffic ticket.

For all the billions spent to promote ticket-writing by police, there is little evidence that it has helped achieve the grants’ primary goal: reducing fatal car crashes.

In 2019 there were 33,244 fatal crashes nationwide, up from 30,296 in 2010. Traffic safety experts say targeted enforcement works, but improvements in automobile technology and highway engineering account for much of the progress since the 1970s and ’80s, when annual fatal crashes routinely exceeded 40,000.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, some municipalities and states are rethinking their approach to traffic stops. Berkeley, Calif., has proposed shifting away from police enforcement, in favor of an unarmed civilian corps; Virginia lawmakers prohibited stops initiated because of defective taillights, tinted windows and loud exhaust.

Fallout from the Nazario case moved Windsor to pursue ways to slow traffic “while reducing police and citizen contacts,” including electronic signs and rumble strips. The Windsor police also ended grant-funded patrols, saying it was “in the best interest of our agency and our community.”

When the town council presented a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it projected revenue increases from all major sources except one: traffic fines.

Arya Sundaram contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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