NYPD officers stop hundreds of thousands of New York drivers every year. Yet, until now, the NYPD revealed very little about the outcome of those stops and who the department was pulling over. Newly released data shows why the NYPD was not eager to hand over this information.
An NYCLU analysis of the vehicle stop data released by the department reveals that officers stopped close to one million people in 2022. The racially disparate outcomes of the traffic enforcement regime are disturbing. Nearly 60 percent of people stopped and 90 percent of those searched and arrested due to NYPD vehicle stops were Black and Latinx.
The NYCLU filed a lawsuit this week against the NYPD to force them to turn over the full set of records about vehicle stops made in 2022, information that has never been made public. The full set of records would allow us to determine much more about the traffic enforcement regime including the demographics of those stopped in certain parts of the city and those stopped while riding a bicycle.
In 2012, the NYCLU sued to get access to NYPD stop-and-frisk data. The information that lawsuit unearthed sparked a series of events that led to a dramatic and welcome reduction in the number of stop-and-frisks, which overwhelmingly impacted Black and Latinx New Yorkers.
The stark racial disparities and the sheer volume of stop-and-frisk activity were key elements of the movement that led to stop-and-frisks’ decline. Neither of those things would have come out without the effort to force the NYPD to reveal this information. Now, the NYCLU is once again suing the NYPD for enforcement data, this time around traffic stops.
These stops are likely the largest category of police-civilian interaction. According to limited information published by the NYPD, officers conducted nearly 675,000 vehicle stops in 2022, a total that matches the number of pedestrian stop-and-frisks conducted at the height of its use under Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2011.
About 59 percent of people stopped by the NYPD while in a vehicle were Black or Latinx, though Black and Latinx people only make up 47 percent of New York City’s adult population and 49 percent of the car commuters, respectively. Close to 2,500 people were searched and 14,700 were arrested during a vehicle stop in 2022, nearly 90 percent of whom are Black and Latinx.
In most stops, a ticket was issued, meaning that the economic burden of traffic tickets is falling hardest on Black and Latinx people, contributing to a growing body of evidence about the racial impact of fines and fees in New York.
Vehicle stops and outcomes of vehicle stops by race
One reason for the enormous number of vehicle stops is that courts have ruled police officers have the authority to stop any vehicle as long as they can claim a traffic or vehicle infraction. This standard is so low – especially since it’s difficult to drive without violating one of the numerous traffic laws – that it permits stops for otherwise impermissible reasons, including racial profiling, sexual targeting, and personal vindictiveness.
The discretion that police officers use in the enforcement of traffic laws has led to vast racial disparities in traffic stops nationwide; Black people, especially, are stopped at higher rates than white people.
Traffic enforcement doesn’t just involve handing out tickets or making arrests. Again and again across America, we’ve seen examples of traffic stops putting people’s lives needlessly at risk. The police killings of Tyre Nichols, Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Sean Bell, and Philando Castile to name just a few are tragic examples of how vehicle stops can turn deadly. According to the Mapping Police Violence project, 86 police killings in 2022 originated from a traffic stop.
The public deserves to know the full extent of what is going on during traffic stops, whether the NYPD wants to reveal this information or not.
The NYPD’s massive traffic enforcement apparatus comes at an economic cost, too. Of its roughly $11 billion annual budget, the NYPD spends as much as 224 million dollars on highway and traffic enforcement each year, which is likely only a portion of the total cost since highway and traffic enforcement officers are not the only officers who engage in vehicle stops.
Lawsuits stemming from the NYPD’s traffic enforcement also cost tax payers enormous sums of money. Over a ten-year period, New York City paid nearly $250 million in settlements for NYPD involved car crashes.
Beyond the large cost of enforcing traffic laws and the potential for dangerous police-civilian encounters, it’s unclear whether traffic enforcement actually prevents traffic deaths.
Some communities are beginning to consider whether police need to be involved in many types of traffic enforcement at all. In the aftermath of Daunte Wright’s killing during a traffic stop, legislators in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota passed legislation that prohibits arrests for low-level traffic offenses and calls for unarmed civilians to handle minor traffic violations. The state of Virginia also passed legislation in 2020 preventing police from making traffic stops for an array of minor infractions, sometimes referred to as “pretext stops.”
In New York, City Comptroller Brad Lander, City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, and State Attorney General Letitia James have all supported the removal of police from all or at least some types of traffic stops.
Access to more information about current police activities will help inform what changes to traffic enforcement need to be made, including whether armed police officers should continue to play any role in routine traffic enforcement. But at least this much is true: the status quo is deeply problematic.
The limited amount of information about NYPD traffic stops we have now was only made public after the City Council passed a law forcing the department to disclose it. Before that, even this limited level of information was completely hidden from New Yorkers. The public deserves to know the full extent of what is going on during traffic stops, whether the NYPD wants to reveal this information or not.