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Pedestrians


To reduce enforcement errors, MPD wants traffic division

The Metropolitan Police Department wants a dedicated traffic unit to fix enforcement problems, including stories about officers serving tickets to injured pedestrians or cyclists at the hospital. MPD believes inconsistent enforcement of traffic laws has created tension between officers and pedestrians or cyclists.


Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Officer Andrew Gamm from MPD's 5th District, Lt. Nicholas Breul from the Special Operations District, and Lt. Mark Hodge from the 6th District spoke with DC's Pedestrian Advisory Council Monday night to talk about these issues.

One brought up a report about an officer ticketing an injured pedestrian in an ambulance, but said he was unable to verify if it was true. Similar incidents came up at a recent hearing and have been reported on blogs like Struck in DC and TBD On Foot.

A sustained effort of education and enforcement can reduce this tension and improve pedestrian safety. However, the current budget crisis and low police staffing levels make this a difficult prospect.

The commanders said MPD used to have a dedicated traffic unit but previous police chiefs decentralized that effort. Currently, each district has officers working on traffic enforcement but they are not a single city-wide unit.

This means enforcement is inconsistent across the city. MPD currently targets "hot spots" for a set period and then moves its resources to other areas. However, problems often return after enforcement efforts end. Uneven enforcement also means some police districts enforce violations like jaywalking, while others do not.

Some on the Pedestrian Advisory Council complained that MPD officers often do not follow up with pedestrians and bicyclists involved in accidents and that the officers can be rude when they do. The commanders admitted that MPD can do more to improve communication with sergeants and patrol officers, including reinforcing proper procedures for crash investigations.

Having a dedicated traffic unit would allow MPD to give specialized training to traffic officers. These officers could also build stronger relationships with the communities they patrol because they would have sustained interactions around traffic enforcement.

Some of the commanders admitted that interactions with pedestrians can be more confrontational than with motorists. This, they said, often happens because pedestrians are more likely to challenge the officer than drivers.

They also said the nature of police work can make routine traffic enforcement tenser. For example, switching from chasing a gunman to writing a jaywalking ticket can be a rough transition. A dedicated traffic unit could help reduce these shifts.

The human nature argument is certainly a fair one. I can imagine if an officer just chased a gunman, his adrenaline may be high, and he may be more likely to be short or rude to an angry pedestrian. But this argument also seems to excuse rude behavior because police work can be dangerous. One officer even went so far as to say he wouldn't tell someone else how to do his or her job. This sort of attitude isn't helpful.

Pedestrian Advisory Council members asked for better public education efforts, including an expansion of the regional StreetSmart program. The program is an enforcement and awareness campaign by area police departments to improve safety for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. George Branyan, DDOT Pedestrian Coordinator, said DDOT has a limited budget for the program. Similar education programs that use shock value are less effective without enforcement to supplement them.

The MPD representatives said the department needs greater political support for increased enforcement, and the advisory council pledged to work with the DC Council to provide more support.

Jamie Scott is a resident of Ward 3 in DC and a regular Metrobus commuter. He believes in good government, livable communities and quality public transit. Jamie holds a B.A. in Government from Georgetown University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown. 

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So, could officers from this new unit issue tickets to MPD officers violating traffic laws, such as the MPD officer driving his cruiser through a notoriously confusing intersection while talking on his cell phone w/o a hands free device?

I agree we need better traffic law enforcement, and I hope that a dedicated unit will provide it. But we also need our police force to follow the laws they're paid to enforce.

by MDE on Mar 17, 2011 11:21 am • linkreport

This is a great idea. I also support taking the guest parking passes and emergency no parking signs and either giving that function to DPW, DDOT or this new traffic division. 85% of the times I have been in the police stations the only other people asking for help have been for guest parking or emergency no parking spaces. DDot or DPW should be handling this job and leave the police more time to fight crime.

Maybe this new division can be a place for rookie officers to get some experience dealing with the public, before they get into the more serious patrols.

by Chris R on Mar 17, 2011 11:38 am • linkreport

Yes! I've been saying this for years. Please oh please oh please do this! It is amazing to me that anyone ever thought 'decentralizing' this was a good idea.

Please keep us updated, and keep pushing for this important step in improving vehicle, pedestrian and cyclist safety in DC!

by Allison on Mar 17, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

No objections here. Why aren't parking enforcement, traffic enforcement, and DMV services all rolled under the same umbrella? This seems like an extremely logical consolidation of services that will result in a fairer application of the law, while freeing MPD up to solve real crimes.

by andrew on Mar 17, 2011 1:02 pm • linkreport

Why is a separate administrative entity for traffic enforcement a good idea? Why aren't all patrol officers simply trained in enforcement of cycling-, pedestrian-, and automobile-oriented laws and their interrelationships?

Don't we want all patrol officers to be so trained? How hard and expensive can that be? I'm willing to bet it's less expensive than creating a new administrative entity with all of the real personnel and equipment costs associated with it.

by pinkshirt on Mar 17, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

"Hey we need more money in our budgets to do the same job we should already be doing".

It's amazing that private sector workers can learn and develop additional, marketable skills on their own, while public sector unionized employees always want a subsidy to do the same job they were hired for.

This is why we get a continual erosion of services at added cost in the public sector.

by ahk on Mar 17, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

@pinkshirt - I agree. What this seems to mean is that MPD is giving up on trying to train all officers to enforce the traffic laws, and instead is going to focus on a subgroup of them and tell them "you *really* need to enforce the traffic laws."

BTW, @andrew, I very much doubt MPD would agree to assign traffic enforcement to an admin. agency. How else would they get basically free searches of cars of suspicious looking people unless they could pull them over for some violation, like a broken taillight?

by ah on Mar 17, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

Hmm, don't like this idea very much and agree that these officers should be able to handle the same sort of cases w/o the creation of another daggone entity.

by HogWash on Mar 17, 2011 1:39 pm • linkreport

I didn't know that this unit had been eliminated, which as you quote people stating, is a mistake.

Note that in SF, the traffic enforcement division of the police department (and note virtually every police dept. in the U.S. has such a department, which typically gets money from the FHWA highway safety program) has been moved to the SFMTA, which in DC would be the equivalent of DDOT.

I think that would be interesting to do here.

by Richard Layman on Mar 17, 2011 1:41 pm • linkreport

Fantastic! But this effort has to be extended to all Police Officers. MPD Officers need to have a much better grasp of bicycle and pedestrian laws and not the same windshield perspective as every other driver.

Just within the past two weeks I have been yelled at by a MPD Officer from his moving car (that he had to maneuver dangerously close to me so that I could hear him) so he could tell me to get in a bike lane (I was making a left turn and thus had taken the whole lane (not that it mattered). On another occasion a MPD officer threatened to write me a ticket for 'impeding traffic' because I was biking in the road.

I have always worried what would happen if they did give me a ticket, how would I fight it? My word against theirs...

by Ryan S. on Mar 17, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

I wonder if we can use this as an opportunity to "de-militarize" the MPD. Is it possible to have a corps of officers who do not require guns? Do traffic cops really need guns? Why not let DDOT enforce traffic laws using civilians?

by M.V. Jantzen on Mar 17, 2011 2:28 pm • linkreport

Great idea to re-establish the dedicated traffic unit. If I'm a bad-ass cop chasing bad guys, I have better things to do than referee squabbles between jaywalkers and motorists, so I will shirk the responsibility, or take it out on the victim who's making all the fuss. But if my ONLY job is to do that, then it will get my full attention and respect.

by crin on Mar 17, 2011 3:24 pm • linkreport

@ MV Jantzen: Is it possible to have a corps of officers who do not require guns? Do traffic cops really need guns?

Really? Making a vehicle stop on an unknown person is one of the most dangerous thing a cop can do.

by ChrisB on Mar 17, 2011 5:31 pm • linkreport

It is highly likely that there will be one or two multiplex cinemas outside of NW soon -- I know for a fact that multiple operators are looking at opening a theater in the Yards project in SE DC. a 12-16 screen complex will probably open there in the next couple of years. At the same time Four Points is considering adding a cinema to their large project in historic Anacostia -- interestingly, some residents have opposed this use for fear that it will be a youth/crime magnet.

by Cine Buff on Mar 17, 2011 5:36 pm • linkreport

@Chris B.

"Really? Making a vehicle stop on an unknown person is one of the most dangerous thing a cop can do"

Everybody always says that, but I don't understand.

Isn't this what most police do, most of the time? Is that why it's the most dangerous thing they can do, because traffic stops are the thing they do most and as such most bad consequences follow a traffic stop?.

Why do they deploy SWAT teams for drug dealers, when according to so many people, pulling over a random commuter is so much more dangerous? I don't get it.

If approaching a pulled over vehicle is so dangerous, what sort of things do the police do that aren't so dangerous?

If the answer is Nothing, then it seems to me that you're basically saying that all police, in all situations, need firearms, basically under the guise that despite the fact that 99% (or whatever the statistic is) of traffic stops occur with no guns pulled and no additional criminal activity discovered, that fact that that 1% occurs justifies arming every cop of any stripe. But if thats the case, why don't every TSA person, Every private security person, every DHS or GSA force protection person, every meter maid, every law enforcement person of any capacity get a gun, at every turn?

How many people got pulled over today in Metro DC and how many of these stops weren't dangerous versus how many were dangerous?

by Joe M. on Mar 17, 2011 6:05 pm • linkreport

Traffic control should be privatized and the contract should be let out to a bunch of very stern (but caring) nuns.

by Turnip on Mar 17, 2011 7:53 pm • linkreport

The commanders said MPD used to have a dedicated traffic unit but previous police chiefs decentralized that effort. Currently, each district has officers working on traffic enforcement but they are not a single city-wide unit.

There used to be a dedicated traffic unit, but this chief has had it out for SOD.

This means enforcement is inconsistent across the city. MPD currently targets "hot spots" for a set period and then moves its resources to other areas.

This also means that strict traffic enforcement is done by officers who like doing traffic and taking traffic lockups.

Some on the Pedestrian Advisory Council complained that MPD officers often do not follow up with pedestrians and bicyclists involved in accidents and that the officers can be rude when they do.

Aside from seeing if someone died in the hospital, got diagnosed with a serious injury at the hospital, etc., what exactly do you want us to do to follow-up? Moreover, when conditions are nasty, I can grind out two or three accident reports a shift. Times that by 5 days a week and that's a general pain in the ass and a lot of phone tag to play.

Having a dedicated traffic unit would allow MPD to give specialized training to traffic officers. These officers could also build stronger relationships with the communities they patrol because they would have sustained interactions around traffic enforcement.

We could get that now if the department offered any sort of serious continual training program for traffic, but they don't. Unlike other agencies, like state police, we're not offered any sort of accident evaluation/reconstruction class. The only time any sort of serious traffic enforcement training outside of field sobreity or Intoximeter is if you manage to land a spot with Major Crash or Motor Carrier enforcement; And like most things in this department training isn't offered on a fair and consistant basis, but to the blessed few who the training coordinator likes.

Maybe this new division can be a place for rookie officers to get some experience dealing with the public, before they get into the more serious patrols.

Depending on where you are working, traffic is just as dangerous as street work. Bad guys drive cars, carry weapons and drugs in cars, and don't want to be locked up just as much as guys walking around. Like many things, special divisions should be applied for once you have some time on, otherwise you don't get balanced training.

I wonder if we can use this as an opportunity to "de-militarize" the MPD. Is it possible to have a corps of officers who do not require guns? Do traffic cops really need guns? Why not let DDOT enforce traffic laws using civilians?

Like I said above, traffic stops can be extremely dangerous. The bad guy in the car has a significant advantage over the officer because I *can't* see what he has in that car. Moreover, what do you do when you have someone who doesn't have a license, is suspended, driving an unregistered auto, is drunk, etc. and they have to be taken into custody. Do you want to be unarmed when you have to take someone into custody? If your unarmed revenue agent tries to pull over a stolen car and there's a bailout or they open fire, we're getting called anyway, so why even bother to go the civilian route?

As for "de-militarizing", that's all well and good until you actually get on the job and realize that there are people who don't like you, will fight you, and will try to kill you to avoid arrest. In terms of militarization, MPD is pretty low on the scale in terms of its resemblance to a paramilitary environment.

Isn't this what most police do, most of the time? Is that why it's the most dangerous thing they can do, because traffic stops are the thing they do most and as such most bad consequences follow a traffic stop?.

See my explanation above. As an officer, you're walking into an unknown situation when you approach the vehicle and the person you're coming up on has the advantage of knowing what you're going to do (generally) and where you're going to be. You generally don't know who is in the car, what they have in terms of weapons, whether they have warrants, etc.

If approaching a pulled over vehicle is so dangerous, what sort of things do the police do that aren't so dangerous?

If the answer is Nothing, then it seems to me that you're basically saying that all police, in all situations, need firearms, basically under the guise that despite the fact that 99% (or whatever the statistic is) of traffic stops occur with no guns pulled and no additional criminal activity discovered, that fact that that 1% occurs justifies arming every cop of any stripe.

There are some things that we do that aren't dangerous. I could work inside at the property division, or at a secured facility like FLETC Cheltenham and have a 1% chance of dying through a malicious act. Just because we're not doing what you consider dangerous doesn't make it so. Look at the Detroit station shooting in January and the Seattle-area shooting last year (IIRC). You can get shot at sitting in a comfy chair at the station. If those officers didn't have weapons because they considered the assignment safe, they'd all be dead.

In general, we don't plan for bad things to happen, but we are trained to approach a situation carefully because things can can and do go south. In order for us to properly do our job, we need to have the capability to defend ourselves and have a monopoly on force if necessary. Just because a fraction of stops truly require a firearm (in hindsight) to be drawn out doesn't mean we shouldn't have them. Would you like to be on the receiving end of that 1%? Would you want to be a lone officer in a car full of thugs and no way to seriously defend yourself? The answer I believe most people would be a firm "NO".

However, if you want to role the dice, you're welcome to put on a uniform, jump in the scout car with me and leave the gun in the glove box.

blah blah blah Have civilians do traffic enforcement

We have too many unaccountable civilian revenue collectors running around as is. We don't need more of them doing traffic enforcement. If civilians get into the act, it will be 100% about revenue and not about safety or law enforcement.

by Boomhauer on Mar 17, 2011 7:54 pm • linkreport

"However, the current budget crisis and low police staffing levels make this a difficult prospect."

Umm doesn't traffic enforcement make money? The fine for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk in DC is $250.

One of these tickets an hour will comfortably cover the cost of the officers time and the associated admin and court costs.

And if you deploy officers in busy areas issuing 2-3 tickets per hour should be easy and many drivers are also going to be charged with talking on cell phones and failure to use turn signals so I don't think it is a stretch to think each traffic stop could yield around $300 in fines.

Also in congested areas many of these stops could be done without vehicles which should also keep costs down.

Only in DC would we even be debating whether this makes sense - in most functional jurisdictions the police just get out and enforce the laws.

by TomQ on Mar 17, 2011 10:13 pm • linkreport

The idea of training every police officer to be an expert in DC traffic law might sound like a good idea, but I doubt it will work in practice. If an officer only does one traffic stop a week, how well is that training going to be retained. I'd think we don't have every officer trained in the intricacies of traffic law for the same reason they aren't all trained in everything - it isn't efficient or productive. So I like the idea of a traffic division.

And they should carry guns. As Boomhauer wrote, bad guys get pulled over, if they knew the officer walking toward them didn't have a gun it could get nasty. In fact I bet bad guys get pulled over a disproportionate number of times (after all, if you'll steal, you'll speed).

The real issue is preventing officers from using their guns in ways that are unnecessary. If that is happening, it should be addressed in other ways.

by David C on Mar 17, 2011 11:34 pm • linkreport

@MDE "So, could officers from this new unit issue tickets to MPD officers violating traffic laws, such as the MPD officer driving his cruiser through a notoriously confusing intersection while talking on his cell phone w/o a hands free device?

Except that police officers are expressly exempted from having to comply with the hands free law. I forget where I learned this (maybe an ANC meeting?), but apparently the rationale is that because they need to be able to communicate with other officers as part of their job, they are exempt. I do remember it was a officer saying this ... I think a PSA leader. And he expressed how he wished it was common knowledge because everyone complains about that.

by Lance on Mar 17, 2011 11:40 pm • linkreport

Some of the commanders admitted that interactions with pedestrians can be more confrontational than with motorists. This, they said, often happens because pedestrians are more likely to challenge the officer than drivers.

The officers think pedestrians are more confrontational than the drivers? Wha? I'd like to see them back up this statement, but perhaps that makes me confrontational.

by TJ on Mar 18, 2011 6:11 am • linkreport

Now if only they would ticket cars that turn into the crosswalk with pedestrians in it while the pedestrians still have the walk signal!

by johnny on Mar 18, 2011 9:43 am • linkreport

Writing tickets for walking is a silly waste of tax money.

In driver's ed, I learned that the motorists is ALWAYS at fault because you must be ready to STOP AT ANY TIME in a car. This is because a child or confused elderly person could wander in front of your car. If you aren't ready to stop for this, you are driving too fast. Period.

Basic research shows that law enforcement does almost zero for non-motorized transportation safety. This is yet another insult to those of us who choose to get some fresh air once in a while.

I contend that we should eliminate all forms of traffic enforcement and treat the whole thing as a civil matter. Make it easier to sue, lay off the public safety officers (sic), and set up a fund to help citizens fast track law suits.

Personal liability will do far, far more than any lame public safety officer who thinks it's OK to harass those of us who are trying to get around on our God given legs.

Jaywalking is not a crime, it's a logical way to get around.

by Fred on Jan 30, 2013 7:32 pm • linkreport

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