Signs of the Times #169

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Shabazz Stuart on Safety, Enforcement, and Justice in Cities

The excellent War on Cars podcast had a discussion in their last episode that touches on the issue of enforcement and traffic safety, something I've been pondering lately. The crew talks to Shabazz Stuart about streets and policing in New York City.

Stuart's comments helped clarify this difficult issue for me, and got to the heart of the key questions around enforcement and representation.

Here's a rough transcript, from about 15:00 into the episode.

Question from Doug Gordon:  Particularly since VZ initiatives start popping up, advocates for VZ have often talked about enforcement to make streets safer. And there's been a lot of pushback on that, saying "hey calling for more enforcement to make streets safer does not necessarily make streets safer for black and brown people. and the bike advocacy movement does tend to be a white and male movement. There's been some writing saying you can't actually have a movement for safe streets until you deal with racism. 
Shabazz Stuart: There's a lot to unpack in this conversation. I think it's a conversation that's long overdue in our community. Look, we cannot be afraid of the term enforcement, and I'm afraid we're heading in this direction where all enforcement is bad. 
Enforcement is a necessary mechanism in an ecosystem of a society that functions with law. If you have laws, your laws need to be supported by enforcement at some point, otherwise why bother having laws? We risk being naive if we think we can have a fully functional legal system without some form of enforcement. So when we talk again about abolishing police departments, we are talking about completely rebuilding what our enforcement mechanisms look like. And the question is not to abolish the notion of enforcement, the question is to fix the notion of enforcement. 
... Right now, I don't know if we can narrow down [the larger conversation about police] to traffic enforcement. In the short term, we can be mindful as advocates that enforcement as it is today is inherently problematic. We have to be mindful that simply saying "we need more enforcement" is not going to be a silver bullet or panacea that solves our problems. We have to account for the problematic nature of enforcement on our streets in our policies. We have to say, if we enforce bike lanes, why are black and brown people more likely to get stopped for running a red light? 
It doesn't mean that we say "no more enforcement." So we include black and brown voices in our conversation, in a manner that is humanizing and acknowledging of their diverse experiences, than we can expect to resolve some of these challenges by virtue of having these people, this constituency, at the table with us as we discuss these issues.  

Listen to the whole conversation for more.


Signs of the Times #168


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Dr. Nichole Morris on Enforcement and Policing

[The one time I got a ticket for running a red light.]
If you have time and interest, check out my article in Minnpost today on policing and traffic safety. It's a very difficult and important issue, and I tried to cover some of the different perspectives that are out there about how and why to rethink how police are used in our transportation system.

There are a lot of sources for folks interested in diving into the topic, including The Untokening and Our Streets Minneapolis.  There's a good article on this topic in Vice that covers the Stanford Policing Project, a thorough effort aimed at reducing traffic stops. And I would absolutely recommend diving into the academic literature on automatic enforcement cameras (rather than the huge amount of online nonsense out there).

That said, one of the people I interviewed is Dr. Nichole Morris, who has been studying enforcement and traffic safety on the ground in the Twin Cities for years and is, in my experience, an exceedingly careful thinker when it comes to traffic safety.

Here's her full statement on the role of policing; I could not fit it all in the article: 
While this has been a very painful time, I'm thankful for the push to take some time to reflect on my notions about traffic safety and what role enforcement should play. I've long believed that fear of ticket is a motivator for drivers to comply with speed limits or other roadway laws. And while that still may be true for some drivers, if we look to the literature, there is little or, at best, mixed evidence that speeding citations result in significant long-term reductions in speeding or additional citations. This is doesn't support the case for big investments in in-person enforcement of speeding.  
I have been studying automated speed enforcement (ASE) for many years and I still believe it is an effective alternative to in-person enforcement. We have found a number of barriers regarding its implementation in Minnesota, but historically a majority of the public supports its use in limited forms. It is commonly stated that ASE or red light cameras are unconstitutional in Minnesota, but Frank Douma, a legal expert from the Humphrey School, will tell you that simply isn't true. It is not unconstitutional but was struck down because the city of Minneapolis did not have the legal authority to implement it. The state legislature does need to allow it and has declined to do so to-date. I am curious about how public perception holds today, if support has grown or diminished. There are still risks to automated enforcement regarding decision making on where to place cameras and how to implement a fee structure. Each decision could result in disproportional impacts or harm on minority populations if not done thoughtfully. Additional benefits of ASE are for reducing the likelihood of "speed discounting" so that white drivers aren't more likely to get away with a warning compared to BIPOC and most importantly, there is little risk of escalation or violence. It also doesn't function as a pretext for other crime enforcement which is doesn't do anything to make our roads safer but I believe simply delegitimizes our traffic laws.  
Ultimately, enforcement in any form treats the symptoms and not the causes of risky driving. There are multiple contributors, but one that we should first look at and treat is the design of our roads. We have overbuilt our roadways to allow drivers to feel too comfortable and drive fast. Near the end of our pedestrian study in St. Paul, compliance was quite high at our study sites, but those drivers who were still not yielding for us were almost always driving too fast. Speed is an undeniable component of the crisis we have with pedestrian safety. High speeds met with wide roadways make it less likely that drivers see a pedestrian waiting to cross and stop for them. We should not be expecting pedestrians to walk halfway into the roadway to be seen. We should add more bump-outs to put them safely closer into the driver's line on sight. The resulting narrowing will also slow drivers down. This type of work is already underway by cities, counties, and the state, but it will take serious reprioritization of funding to expedite to the level that our communities need. 
Two other culprits I see fueling the causes of risky driving are phone and vehicle manufacturers. There is little doubt in my mind that Google and Apple could make it far more difficult for drivers to use their phones while driving (pressing a button to say you aren't driving just isn't cutting it), they just have little desire to do it. We can't enforce our way out of phone-related distracted driving. It's too pervasive and too hard to detect. We need forcing functions and our government needs to start demanding it of these companies. There is also little doubt in my mind that vehicle manufacturers could make it harder to speed. Systems like GMs Supercruise can only operate where they have mapped the roadways, meaning they KNOW the speed limit, yet they allow drivers to exceed that limit with hands-off, feet-off comfort. It's insane that we allow the manufacturers to be accessories to drivers behaving recklessly on our highways. They don't have any desire to sell a vehicle that prevents you from speeding because who would buy it when other alternatives that let you speed to your heart's desire sit next to it on the car lot. Again, our government needs to demand it as the EU has been pursuing. This isn't some advanced form of level 5 automation that is years (or decades) down the road. It exists today. 
Lastly, in addressing high visibility enforcement for the crosswalk law,  I don’t have enough information yet speak to its efficacy within the STOP for Me program. We had great results for increasing driver compliance in our last study, but we observed smaller improvements with earlier treatment phases that included enforcement and education/outreach, and a bigger increase in stopping compliance was seen after we introduced low-cost engineering treatments (along with continued enforcement and education/outreach). However, we do not yet know whether the improved compliance was mostly from engineering, or if it was additive with the multi-pronged approach, or if time/duration of enforcement was a factor. We hope to have a clearer answer to that with future research. But, I'm not sure judging purely based on stopping compliance is good enough. I think we need to question and examine Stop for Me as holistically as possible to ensure that we aren't simply trading off one risk for another. It may be time to consider how the Stop for Me program can transition to something that meets the needs of the entire community and increases public safety.   

[List of names, disproportionately POCI, from the cover of the Vision Zero plan.] 
My personal take on this is evolving. I've long been focused on the how cars and our automobile-drenched cities have been a tool for injustice and harm, and tend to be somewhat myopic when it comes to the role of cars in cities. Yet structural racism in policing is an older, more deeply rooted problem, and thinking through how to address it in the 21st century is our fundamental challenge.

But the relationship between automobile violence and police violence is not straightforward. This fascinating book on how African-Americans relied on cars in the mid-20th century is worth your time (or this podcast interview here). Punitive traffic fines - like the ones that still plague Ferguson, Missouri - lead people into an unjust court system. For folks who lack stable housing, cars can be their only refuge.

At the same time, vehicle violence is increasing, and people of color are the most vulnerable to being killed or injured by reckless drivers. As we have seen, cars or trucks are increasingly used as weapons against people, demonstrators or not. People of color disproportionately live in places with bad air quality because of fossil fueled cars. And highways and county arterials have been designed for generations to privilege suburban and wealthy drivers over people living in urban neighborhoods. Even robot cars are racist.

And on and on...

This problem is not an easy thing to solve, which might be a reason why Alex Vitale's otherwise comprehensive book, The End of Policing, does not really mention traffic safety. I wish there were easy answers besides "redesign all our streets," which is not an easy answer at all.

I continue to believe we need some enforcement of speeding and parking rules in cities, which is why I believe we need automatic enforcement cameras to replace cops. Automatic enforcement is technologically simple, effective at solving the problem of dangerous driving, is vastly better than relying on police. We must try to craft a system that does not overly punish black, brown, or indigenous people, but holds every driver to the same standard.

I'd love to learn more about how to do this, and whether it's even possible.


Twin City Doorways #60

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Signs of the Times #167




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Minneapolis Police Violence is a Statewide Issue

[Former Arnellia's bar, now a hair and wig shop, on University Avenue in Saint Paul.]

Like many white, urban, politically left people, I’ve been struggling to come to terms with the reality of the racism and state-sponsored violence that has unfolded in my cities over the past few days. It’s taken me many days to even begin to process how these events intersect with my preexisting worldview and concerns. I began by cleaning up broken glass at the light rail station a few blocks from my house with some strangers, talking to neighbors, and attending a demonstration. bBut mostly I've been staring out the window or at the news.

One of the few things that gives me hope after another traumatic killing, nights of devastation, and yet more violence perpetrated by police, is that our sense of what is socially and politically possible is rapidly changing. I am trying hard to listen to the voices of folks who are most impacted by police brutality and a system that condones it. I will try to follow their lead.

That’s job number one.

At the same time, I am just calm enough where I am can begin to connect these critical discussions into the work I’ve been doing for many years writing about the urban geography of the Twin Cities. I am rethinking how policing and racism touches on many topics that urban planners, geographers, and transportation advocates care about, and I promise to keep discussing this as much as I can. Today, I want to try and connect the killing of George Floyd and its violent aftermath into the broader context of Twin Cities and Minnesota politics.

Yesterday, listening to MPR and appreciating some of the great work they’ve been doing, I heard Marianne Combs say something I’ve heard many times before: "Minneapolis has some of the worst racial inequalities in the country." She went on to list unemployment gaps, housing, and income gaps between black and white people, all of which are primarily regional in nature.

This is not to let Minneapolis city leaders or any white people living in the city off the hook, but using “Minneapolis” as a synecdoche for Minnesota racism is part of the problem. It should be very clear by now that the crisis caused by the Minneapolis Police Department and the systems that support them is a regional and statewide issue.

This becomes obvious as you see Minneapolis elected officials describe just how difficult it is to change their Police Department. It's extremely difficult because empowering the deadly Police Department to use violence on black and brown people in Minneapolis has been a consistent policy platform for both parties, especially state Republicans, and they have erected many barriers.

Here’s just one, in retrospect rather stunning, example that took place just a few months ago at the State Capitol in Saint Paul. As reported by FOX 9:

Just to be clear about what is happening here: Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is arguing with exurban and rural Minnesota Republicans -- the only kinds that remain -- about exactly how much new money should be given to the Minneapolis Police Department. They are accusing him of not offering more money to the Minneapolis Police Department, and he is saying “not true!" because he did try to give more money to the Minneapolis Police Department.

Meanwhile, using an anecdote about "a grandpa from Lakeville" witnessing "an argument" on a light rail train, the media is framing transit/the city/black people as synonymous with crime.

That kind of story has repeated in mind-numbing fashion for generations. Here’s another one of the literally hundreds of recent media examples. It's a report from March 10th (!) about “gun violence” on WCCO news:

At this press conference, Minnesota Republicans used scare tactics to demand more Minneapolis police officers in general, and on more police on light rail platforms and train cars in particular, especially in Downtown Minneapolis and in communities of color. State Senator Roger Chamberlain of exurban Lino Lakes — population 20,000, 20 miles north of downtown Minneapolis, 94% white, and which includes a state prison — says at the podium:
If Minneapolis and Saint Paul cannot adequately protect their citizens, we’re going to help them do that. We all have constituents that go to these two cities. We need vibrant inner cities. They need to be safe. 
It seems like ancient history, but people wondering how the Minneapolis Police Department got so bad, how they became an unaccountable, out-of-control, un-reformable force for consistent racism and violence, this kind of state politics is one of the fundamental causes.

Especially as the so-called “rural/urban divide” has become a central political focus of the right wing, this cry for so-called law and order has intensified. For generations, media and political narratives about  “downtown”, “the cities”, or “transit” has formed a chorus of racist dog whistling from the right wings of both parties. As a result, the way that the Minneapolis Police Department thinks about the city of Minneapolis, and the especially the black people that live there, is a dark crystallization of the views of many people in the suburbs and exurbs and rural parts of Minnesota.

[This year's Star Tribune editorial calling to empower the Minneapolis Police Department.]

Do a quick search — Star Tribune downtown crime — and see it for yourself. Just before COVID-19 hit, spurred by right-wing state officials and business interests, the Star Tribune and television news were overflowing with articles about so-called downtown crime or pearl clutching about disorder on the Twin Cities light rail system.

Meanwhile, in the big picture, crime is lower than it's been in generations. Specifically in Minneapolis, as local media critic David Brauer has chronicled, crime has not been particularly increasing, downtown or elsewhere. Brauer has spent years correcting the local media every time the news fills with another round of so-called crime stories.

It’s important to remember all of this as we begin to pivot to a discussion about policy changes. I am hopeful that, after systemic police violence has been so clearly exposed, so-called law and order politics that pervades our bleak two-party system will not be tolerated.

First, white people like myself, living in Minneapolis and Saint Paul need to dramatically rethink their relationships with their black and brown neighbors. But changing our politics will also be up to people living in the Twin Cities suburbs, nearly all of which are 80+% white, and where the vast majority of Minnesota’s wealth can be found. White people in Minnesota need to consistently reject so-called law and order narratives, stop demonizing “the city” and by extension black and brown people, and take seriously the fact that the segregation, inequality, racism, and the police themselves are the problems.