May 14, 2024 - News

Denver police restrict low-level traffic stops

A Denver police officer writes a ticket along southbound Interstate 25. Photo: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Denver Police Department is limiting its officers from making certain low-level traffic stops and freeing them up to focus on more serious crimes.

Why it matters: The policy shift is intended to improve efficiency for an agency short 167 officers and seeing longer response times. It could also reduce incidents of racial profiling by police, which critics say too often lead to violence.

  • Multiple analyses in recent years have shown that DPD tends to stop, ticket and arrest Black and Hispanic people at a disproportionately higher rate than white residents.

What they're saying: "This is a move towards earning and regaining that public trust" and "making better use of our time," police Chief Ron Thomas told CBS4.

  • "A lot of our traffic stops that we would make don't result in an arrest or citation … so, clearly, we're not getting what is expected out of them," he said.

How it works: DPD will no longer pull people over for low-level offenses, which the agency defines as "minor traffic infractions that do not pose an immediate threat to public safety," according to agency documents provided to Axios Denver.

  • That includes things like expired registration tags, driving without fully functioning headlights or taillights, or failing to use a turn signal.

Yes, but: Speeding, driving under the influence, running red lights or stop signs, reckless and careless driving — or being suspected of a crime like drug and firearm possession or burglary — will still warrant a stop, DPD documents show.

  • You can also still be ticketed for a low-level offense if you're pulled over for a more serious violation that presents a public safety risk.

Context: The policy change, led by Thomas, was approved at the beginning of May and first suggested to the chief by council members last year, a DPD spokesperson told us.

The big picture: Numerous other U.S. cities, including San Francisco and Philadelphia, have passed similar policies limiting officers from stopping drivers for low-level offenses to improve public safety.

  • Recent research from the Vera Institute of Justice found that some cities that have made such changes have seen a reduction in racial disparities in traffic stops, no significant negative impacts on crime and fewer fatalities from police car chases.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration identified 455 fatal crashes involving police vehicle pursuits in 2020, up from 362 the year before, according to a 2023 study.

The other side: At least one state — Washington — that passed laws limiting police pursuits has rolled back restrictions after police agencies said it negatively affected their ability to fight crime.

  • However, vehicle chases for lower-level crimes, such as property theft, remain banned there.

What we're watching: Denver City Council members are expected to recommend related policing policies that they would like to see funded in the mayor's 2025 budget as early as this week, council spokesperson Robert Austin tells us.

Go deeper: Denver mayor announces plans to create Office of Neighborhood Safety

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