A Michigan City Ended Low-Level Traffic Stops. Now the County Could Follow.

In the race for Washtenaw County sheriff, candidates want to limit unnecessary policing encounters and reduce fees from traffic enforcement.

Pascal Sabino   |    June 6, 2024

An Ann Arbor Police vehicle. (Facebook/ City Of Ann Arbor – Police Department)

When Ann Arbor City Council member Cynthia Harrison began her initiative to stop police from pulling over drivers for minor violations, she listened to constituents who raised the issue of being stopped and sometimes searched for things like a broken tail light or expired registration. But for her, it was also personal—as a mother of Black men, she knew the feeling of fear and worry that sinks in for many drivers when they see flashing lights in the rearview mirror.

“It’s like these little cuts and scrapes that happen over time for Black mothers who have kids on the road who are driving,” Harrison said. “When I knew my youngest son was on the road, I was nervous all the time. I was on edge. When he called me, sometimes it was like my heart would stop.”

Harrison’s resulting policy, the Driving Equality Ordinance, passed handily in 2023 in the small progressive university town that often welcomes reform. The measure prohibits officers from pulling drivers over for small infractions, allowing them to send drivers a ticket in the mail instead. Now, the policy has also set the stage for a larger debate across Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor sits. There, candidates in the race for county sheriff have echoed local calls to reform traffic stops, but have diverging visions on policy.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton announced in 2022 that he wouldn’t seek reelection after serving four consecutive terms leading law enforcement in Washtenaw. With no Republicans in the race, voters will choose Clayton’s successor in the Democratic primary on Aug. 6. Clayton never formally limited officers from making stops for equipment and registration issues. But he did previously speak out against the use of traffic stops to search drivers and fish for contraband after prosecutors decided in 2021 to stop charging many cases where drivers are arrested during a non-safety-related traffic stop.

Alyshia Dyer, a former deputy sheriff and social worker who is one of the three candidates in the sheriff’s primary, previously advocated for the Ann Arbor restriction on non-safety traffic stops and said she would scale the policy across the entire county if elected. 

One of her competitors, Ken Magee, does not support a restriction on non-safety stops, but has proposed a policy to reduce fines and fees from traffic enforcement. The third candidate, Derrick Jackson, has also included reforming traffic enforcement as an item on his platform, though his proposal for a comprehensive traffic stop study is less sweeping than the others’ plans. 

The traffic stop policy of whomever wins the race will most heavily affect those living not in Ann Arbor, but in surrounding areas like Ypsilanti Township, where the local government relies on sheriff’s officers in lieu of having its own police department. Nearly half of the 27,000 stops by sheriff’s officers in Washtenaw County in 2023 happened in Ypsilanti Township, where Black people make up a higher portion of the population than Ann Arbor and the county at large, data shows. 

“Traffic enforcement can often be a gateway for funneling people into the legal system. And even if you don’t get a ticket, it can cause a lot of trauma for people,” Dyer said. “Blanketing communities by making these low-level stops… I think all it does is criminalize the neighborhood instead of investing in the neighborhood to make it safer.”

Dyer’s approach to reforming traffic stops grew from her decade in the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office, where she encountered both pressure from the chain of command to do high volumes of traffic stops, and the negative effects of those stops on communities.

“I saw when I was doing community engagement work that it actually was reducing violence in the communities I was frequenting. But I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting evaluated on that good community engagement work,” Dyer told Bolts. “Instead, it was all about how many traffic stops, how many tickets or arrests you’re making.”  

It is illegal for law enforcement departments in Michigan to require officers to meet quotas for traffic stops, tickets and other activity. But even without a formal quota, higher-ups often evaluate officers’ performance using those metrics and officers are trained to initiate frequent contacts with civilians “to show they are being productive,” Dyer said.

“I really believe when you evaluate officers on punitive metrics like traffic stops, it creates an issue with over policing,” she continued.

In Ann Arbor, these policing practices rarely broke down evenly across racial lines. Around the same time that Harrison put forward the policy to reduce unnecessary encounters between police and civilians, Eastern Michigan University released a study that documented significant racial disparities in traffic stops conducted by the Ann Arbor Police Department. The study found Black drivers were stopped twice as often for equipment violations and searched at five times the rate that would be expected given their portion of the local driving population.

“It’s our goal to provide law enforcement services without bias or favor,” Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor told Bolts. But traffic stops based on equipment violations, where the racial disparity is the widest, generally “do not have any material public safety benefit.”

Harrison’s plan to take low-level violations like tinted windows, burned-out tail lights and loud mufflers off of police officers’ plates was intended to curb racial bias by preventing unnecessary police encounters. It is also meant to allow officers to focus on things that really make a difference when it comes to safety. Harrison based the ordinance on Philadelphia’s Driving Equality Act, enacted in 2022, that made it the first major city to limit officers from making stops for certain minor traffic offenses. 

“I want to free up the police department to go after speeding, running red lights, and those violations that can get someone seriously injured,” Harrison said.

The ordinance passed unanimously through city council with virtually no opposition. To Harrison’s surprise, the local police union did not challenge the reform, even though it limited officers’ authority.

“There is a common understanding that this is something the police should be okay with, in this day and age,” Harrison said. “I feel like we can be leaders, and we can set the example.”

In fact, police leadership announced that officers would stop pulling over drivers for equipment violations even before the ordinance took effect. “There is always a struggle with a change in culture,” said Ann Arbor Chief of Police Andre Anderson about the process of implementing the policy. (Anderson wasn’t police chief when the ordinance first passed, but is now overseeing its rollout.)

Despite some initial hesitation officers have been receptive to making changes that “ensure our actions build trust and don’t damage the relationship with the community,” Anderson told Bolts

The Driving Equality Ordinance in Ann Arbor served as a direct policy model for Dyer’s plan to end non-safety traffic stops throughout the county. Dyer’s proposal aims to end the indirect quotas by limiting the authority of sheriff’s deputies to pull drivers over for low-level infractions, including many of the same equipment and registration issues. Such a policy would have an immediate effect on traffic stops in Ypsilanti Township, Superior Township, and rural parts of the county where sheriff’s deputies routinely patrol. Shifting the culture within the department is equally important, Dyer said, and that’s something that must be achieved by restructuring the way officers are evaluated.

Michigan’s rules for funding the legal system also cloud the motive for county officers to do stops, since district courts are funded in part by traffic ticket revenue. The court in Ypsilanti Township has in recent years budgeted for some $625,000 in fees such as traffic tickets to flow through the court, accounting for up to a third of its funding, records show

The state’s Trial Court Funding Commission released a report in 2019 that said it was imperative to separate the justice system from penal fees due to risk of excessive police and court enforcement being used to boost municipal revenue. The funding mechanism risked a budget crisis for some courts during the coronavirus pandemic when fewer drivers were on the road and revenue plummeted, Dyer said.

“Local municipalities become reliant on it. What we realized during COVID is that it’s not sustainable,” Dyer said. “We shouldn’t be using deputies to be revenue generators.”

Magee, a former federal agent and one of Dyer’s opponents in the race for sheriff, also insists there should be no conflict of interest or incentive for officers to stop drivers for any reason besides traffic safety. The justice system shouldn’t balance its budget on the backs of working-class drivers, he said. But a blanket policy against stopping drivers over certain equipment and registration violations reaches too far and “flies in the face of traffic safety standards,” Magee told Bolts.

“These are traffic offenses that are geared towards making sure people’s vehicles are roadworthy and safe,” he said, adding that equipment standards prevent danger like carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty mufflers.

Instead, Magee would reorient the ticketing system toward education rather than a financial penalty. Instead of paying a fine or challenging the ticket in court, Magee’s traffic education model would give drivers a third option: a short online course that addresses the specific traffic violation. Completing the 15- to 30-minute course suspends the ticket, and if the driver keeps a clean record for 18 months, the violation is dismissed without a fee or adding points to the driver’s record.

“Why are we utilizing this as a cash cow for the court systems?” Magee asked. “Traffic enforcement has to be about prevention of harm and educating people. It should not be a punitive process. An educated driver is going to save lives.”

Besides creating a traffic education model to take the money out of the traffic stop equation, Magee says the sheriff’s office must create “checks and balances” to address any biased policing and ensure officers aren’t making traffic stops just to make searches. 

To do this, Magee is proposing the creation of a countywide independent civilian oversight panel to investigate complaints of officer misconduct, review internal investigations and track any patterns that emerge in enforcement activities. Such accountability mechanisms are necessary, Magee says, to make sure existing guardrails like the quota ban are actually followed.

“Leadership has to hold their troops accountable to make sure those trends don’t lean towards racial bias, and leadership has to be held accountable for making sure those policies are adhered to,” Magee said.

Traffic stops are not the only issue that the incoming sheriff will face; at a public forum in May voters also questioned the candidates on how they would manage conditions at the local jail, develop programs for mental illness and substance abuse, and strengthen transparency and community partnership. 

But traffic enforcement is the most common encounter that people have with law enforcement, and in a progressive county where each of the candidates is trying to position themselves as a reformer, the differences between their platforms on this issue could impact how thousands of people experience their county’s policing force. 

Jackson, who is the current Community Engagement Director for the sheriff’s office and has received outgoing Sheriff Clayton’s endorsement in the race, has defended the current sheriff’s approach to reducing traffic stops and insisted that improvements are already in the works. While Jackson, who did not respond to Bolts’ request for an interview, proposed a study to analyze enforcement patterns, he approaches the issue of traffic stops as something to address through management rather than through a new policy. 

On the other hand, Magee and Dyer are more focused on entirely removing incentives for officers to make stops to gain ticket revenue or search for contraband. It’s a fundamental rethinking of the role of sworn officers in traffic enforcement that Anderson, the Ann Arbor police chief, says is happening more broadly. 

“It is something being considered all across the country, that at some point we will evolve in law enforcement where there may be alternative ways to address some of the more minor infractions,” Anderson told Bolts. “It may not be the police. There may be another way to address these concerns.”

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