By Paul Kiefer
Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced Friday that SPD will no longer stop people for four minor traffic infractions, including violations of the county’s mandatory bicycle helmet law. The announcement, which takes effect immediately, opens the door to additional future reductions in low-level traffic enforcement.
In addition to the helmet law, officers will no longer stop drivers for missing, expired, or improperly displayed registration; items hanging from rear-view mirrors; or cracked windshields. “These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote in a letter to the Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge announcing the decision. “We know there are also reasons for concern that these violations may disproportionately fall on those who are unable to meet the financial requirements set forth by law.” Officers will still be able to enforce the underlying laws, but only if they stop a driver or bicyclist for a more serious violation.
The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “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. “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.”
Last fall, Diaz expressed an interest in introducing traffic stop reforms before the end of 2021. When the reforms hadn’t happened by December, some police accountability advocates who took part in the discussions between SPD and the OIG worried that the election of Bruce Harrell—and his decision to dismiss SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, an enthusiastic participant in discussions about traffic stop reform—would delay the reforms. The chief’s latest letter could help allay those concerns.
The list of violations SPD will decline to enforce could still grow, Diaz wrote, as SPD reviews Seattle’s traffic codes for other offenses that may not justify a stop. For now, he wrote, SPD will continue to stop drivers for other vehicle equipment violations, including broken taillights, which several civil rights groups urged the department to stop enforcing. “For pedestrian and driver safety, we cannot allow vehicles with safety equipment issues to just remain in that status,” he wrote.
Judge’s initial proposal to scale back the role of police in traffic enforcement triggered pushback from some law enforcement representatives, including Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Mike Solan, who called the recommendations “ill-advised, reckless, bizarre and nonsensical” and claimed that they 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.
According to SDOT data, the minor driving infractions listed in Diaz’s letter do not present serious risks to the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. The four leading causes of deadly or serious collisions in Seattle—speeding, distracted driving, ignoring pedestrians’ right-of-way, and driving while intoxicated—made up a third of all tickets given by SPD since 2015, and SPD has no plans to stop enforcement of those traffic laws.
The decision to stop enforcing the helmet law reflects more than a year of debate in King County about the disproportionate enforcement of the law against homeless people and people of color. After Crosscut reported in 2020 that nearly half of helmet law citations in Seattle went to homeless cyclists, the King County Board of Health, which oversees the helmet requirement, began discussing the possibility of repealing the law; the board is set to make a decision on the helmet law year.
In recent years, more than half of all cyclist citations were for helmet law violations, which typically involve a $100-$150 fine; according to Seattle Municipal Court data, 77 percent of those fines go unpaid. In addition to formal citations, a community stakeholder and bike advocate who contributed to the OIG’s discussions estimated that SPD officers may have stopped hundreds or thousands of bicyclists for not wearing helmets without issuing citations, sometimes as a justification to question the bicyclist about a different crime.
Diaz’s announcement does not necessarily spell a dramatic change in SPD’s day-to-day operations. After two years of very high attrition, SPD has dismantled its traffic enforcement unit and moved the officers to patrol shifts, triggering a dramatic decline in the number of tickets and warnings issued to drivers and bicyclists.