By Paul Kiefer
A long-awaited announcement by Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlining a plan to phase out low-level traffic stops by police officers did not appear when expected this month. The delay raises the prospect that the policy change, previously a point of agreement between Diaz and police reform advocates, could become entangled by the impending shakeup in city leadership, especially as Diaz waits to learn whether incoming mayor Bruce Harrell will appoint him as the police department’s permanent chief.
Last Tuesday, members of SPD’s command staff met with staffers from the Seattle’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the police oversight agency that first pushed SPD to forego low-level traffic stops earlier this year, to brainstorm how to disentangle traffic enforcement from policing. The meeting was a chance for Diaz to solidify a plan of action before the end of the year: a deadline he seemed to endorse in October.
Before he could announce any changes, Diaz quietly left his office for the holidays, which most likely means the traffic stop reforms will remain on hold until next year. The new year could also bring a new police chief: While Diaz has expressed his interest in becoming Seattle’s permanent police chief, Harrell says he will conduct a nationwide search. Impending shakeups within the core group of city departments responsible for spearheading traffic stop reform risk delaying the changes even further.
Removing police from low-level traffic enforcement, Inspector General Lisa Judge argued last summer, is a way to address longstanding concerns that both community members and police officers have expressed the safety risks involved in traffic stops. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote in a letter to Diaz in May. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”
Traffic stops are still among the most common types of encounters between police and civilians in Seattle, though SPD’s traffic enforcement has waned as the department focuses its officers on other priorities after two years of high attrition. As of early November, SPD had issued about a third as many traffic citations as it did in 2019. The fines collected from minor traffic citations make up a relatively tiny portion of the city’s revenue—about $5 million since 2019.
Despite the drop-off in traffic stops, racial disparities persist: Though the Seattle Municipal Court has incomplete data on the demographics of people cited for traffic violations, even the partial data shows that Black people are overrepresented by a factor of two compared to the city’s overall population. Nationwide, drivers of color are also more likely to be injured or killed by police during routine traffic stops, a trend that Judge highlighted in her letter to Diaz in May.
Po Leapai, a member of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, is all too familiar with the dangers of traffic stops. On New Year’s Eve in 2018, SPD officer Jared Keller shot and killed his cousin, 36-year-old Iosia Faletogo, in Seattle’s Licton Springs neighborhood after a minor traffic stop and a case of mistaken identity turned into a foot chase. “We learned he had been killed from Facebook,” Leapai said. “We were all at a family New Year’s barbecue waiting for him to show up, and he never came.”
The incident began when two SPD patrol officers driving behind Faletogo on Aurora Avenue N. decided to search his license plate. Their search linked the license plate to an older woman with an expired driver’s license, a relative of Faletogo’s who owned the car. When Faletogo pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store, the officers pulled in behind him and turned on their emergency lights. After learning that Faletogo lacked a driver’s license and had two felony charges from his teenage years, the officers called for backup. When four more officers arrived, Faletogo ran.
The officers caught up to him across the street, tackling Faletogo to the ground. A gun fell out of his waistband, and as the officers tried to pin him to the pavement, Keller shot Faletogo, killing him.
The Office of Police Accountability, cleared Keller of wrongdoing for the shooting, citing Faletogo’s gun and his attempt to resist arrest. But in May, Judge cited Faletogo’s killing in her argument to end the use of police for low-level traffic enforcement.
Leapai believes his cousin would still be alive if SPD patrol officers hadn’t decided to stop him for a minor traffic infraction. “Those traffic stops are another kind of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “I can’t see why there was a need to pull my cousin over, and it definitely wasn’t worth killing him.”
Faletogo’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Seattle in December 2020, arguing that the traffic stop that led to his death was unconstitutional and discriminatory. Faletogo was Samoan; a woman riding in the car with him was Black. Nathan Bingham, who represented the family in the lawsuit, said that the traffic stop itself is at the heart of the problem. “That stop never should have happened,” he told PubliCola. “Minor traffic stops, by their nature, always come with the threat of deadly force by police. They’re volatile and unpredictable.” The city settled with the Faletogo family for $515,000 in September.
If SPD takes more time to consider scaling back traffic stops, Seattle will find itself in a race with state lawmakers to implement reforms when the discussion about traffic enforcement resumes in January. At the very end of last year’s state legislative session, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) introduced a bill that would have prohibited police officers from stopping drivers for eight common civil infractions, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license.
“This isn’t any less relevant now than it was last year,” Nguyen said. “[Low-level traffic stops] aren’t the best use of law enforcement’s time, and those stops devolved time and time again into serious uses of force or arrests. There are better ways to handle all of this.”
Nguyen added that while law enforcement representatives from around the state generally agree that low-level traffic stops are risky, few are enthusiastic about completely removing police from the equation. “More often than not, [law enforcement] will say, ‘low-level traffic stops aren’t something we’re doing right now anyway,'” Nguyen said. “I’ll follow up by asking whether we should just codify that change, and they often get cold feet.”
Marco Monteblanco, the president of Washington’s Fraternal Order of Police, acknowledges the reasoning behind Nguyen’s bill. “It’s true that in many jurisdictions, there has been a decline in the number of vehicles stopped for civil traffic violations, though officers are still making those stops as part of their duties,” he said. “We know that traffic stops can be very dangerous, and if the legislature limits when officers can do them, we will adhere to the law.”
At the same time, Monteblanco argues that traffic stops are an important bulwark against more dangerous behavior. “We have to proceed with caution, because there is a need for simple traffic enforcement,” he said. “It gives us a chance to educate the public about traffic laws just as much as it gives us a chance to enforce those laws … and it’s important for curbing more serious traffic collisions.”
Nguyen sees a different set of challenges. In Washington, police officers can’t make so-called “pretext stops”—stopping a vehicle for a broken taillight in order to search for drugs, for instance—but state law leaves room for “mixed-motive” stops, meaning that officers can give multiple reasons for stopping a driver. “That gray area makes it really hard to just make a list of things that law enforcement can’t stop people for,” Nguyen said, “because an officer can just claim that they had multiple reasons for conducting the stop, and there’s just not an easy way to dispute that.”
Nguyen plans to reintroduce an enhanced version of his bill next year, building off a model established last year by the Virginia state legislature, which prohibited law enforcement officers from stopping drivers for a set of minor infractions similar to the list in Nguyen’s original bill. Seattle’s OIG has looked for guidance from Anjelica Hendricks, a former policy analyst for Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, which played a leading role in the Philadelphia city council’s decision to bar police officers from stopping drivers for minor offenses in October. Philadelphia has plans to introduce a new force of unarmed, civilian traffic enforcement officers. While Seattle’s parking enforcement officers’ union has expressed interest in taking a similar role, the union will need to reach an agreement with the larger Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) to take on new roles.
In May, SPOG President Mike Solan condemned the notion of removing police from low-level traffic enforcement, calling Judge’s recommendation “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claiming that it could spur an increase in crime. “Does this now signal people to stop registering their vehicles and completely disregard the rule of law?” he wrote in an open letter last summer.
While the city could also scale up the use of traffic cameras to enforce some minor rules, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe—a key participant in discussions about alternatives to police in traffic enforcement—will be out of a job in January, adding even more uncertainty to the future of traffic stop reform in Seattle.