After months of struggling to pay off your fine in order to have the hold on your license removed, you’re now back on the road. But, before you take off and start driving too freely, you should know there’s a connection between how much you struggled to pay off your fine and the likelihood you’re pulled over again. This tragic irony directly relates to what part of Greeley you live in. Obviously, those who live in lower-income areas are going to struggle the most to pay off a municipal fine. And, unfortunately, collected data shows Greeley Police initiate most of their traffic stops in the poorer areas of Greeley.
In analyzing 4,307 traffic stops initiated within Greeley (excluding highways) an interesting trend shows up.1 Data shows that over the course of two months in 2017 a person’s chances of being stopped by a police officer anywhere east of 35th Avenue was 38.6% greater than a person’s chances of being stopped west of 35th Avenue. This means that during these two months whenever you crossed from an area west of 35th Avenue into an area east of 35th Avenue your chances of being involved in a traffic stop increased by a startling 38.6%.2
Why does this matter? Well, there certainly aren’t any gated communities east of 35th Avenue. Greeley’s most expensive neighborhoods exist overwhelmingly in areas west of 35th Avenue. In fact, according to statistics from the United States Census Bureau on median home value, 10 out of 14 “tracts” (the title the U.S. Census Bureau uses to refer to sections it divides Greeley into) east of 35th Avenue have a median home value below $171,800, while 9 out of the 11 tracts found west of 35th Avenue report a median home value above $215,200.3
Add this contrast to the fact that data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Response Outreach Area Mapper shows there’s a large discrepancy in average median income between those who live west of 35th Avenue and those who live east of 35th Avenue.4 For instance, the average median income for all 11 of the U.S. Census Bureau’s tracts found west of 35th Avenue is $76,169.54, while the average median income for 15 tracts found east of 35th Avenue is $37,181.13.5
The average median income of residents living west of 35th Avenue is double the average median income of residents living east of 35th Avenue. It’s clear, then, that those who live east of 35th Avenue are more likely to experience greater difficulty in paying off debts—such as a municipal fine—than those who live west of 35th Avenue. This is highly unfortunate if for every 4,000 traffic stops 70% are going to occur east of 35th Avenue, as sample data from Greeley indicates. When traffic stops take place disproportionately in low-income areas, of course issues such as debtors’ prisons and residential hostility are going to arise.
Now, there are those who will argue that traffic stops are equally distributed across income-levels or that there are reasons for disproportionate traffic stops. As for the argument that traffic stops do not occur at an unequal rate, data used for this piece finds that traffic stops can (and may inherently) take place in some areas far more often than in others. In fact, a real-world example of such data was witnessed on a national level when Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Saint Paul Public Schools nutrition services supervisor, was killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop in July of 2016. It was reported that Castile had been pulled over 52 times in the years prior to his death, racking up $6,588 in fines. Fifty-two times he was pulled over. Fifty-two times. How many times have you been pulled over in recent years? Certainly, everyone reading this has either accidentally ran a traffic light or lost track of their speed at some point. Some reading this may even admit to regularly disobeying traffic laws and speeding about town as they please. And yet how many reading this have been pulled over anywhere near 52 times? If Castile lived in an area where traffic stops occurred at an equal rate then he would not have been pulled over nearly as often or everyone in this same area would also have been experiencing an extremely high rate of traffic stops. And, since he wasn’t pulled over less and the latter is virtually impossible (there aren’t enough police on patrol in any city or town to be able to pull over all its residents at such a high rate), it must be that Castile lived or commuted through an area with a higher rate of traffic stops, maybe something like 38.6% higher.
It’s not just everyday citizens who notice the frequency of disproportionate policing; there are political officials who have also made note of this widespread issue. Republican Senator Tim Scott, who happens to be one of only two African-American U.S. Senators, shared his experience on the Senate floor in July of 2016. Scott exclaimed, "in the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers. Not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial."6 Senator Scott’s and Mr. Castile’s experiences, as well as the experiences of many, many others, combined with the data used for this piece make it hard to argue that traffic enforcement never, or rarely, takes place at a disproportionate rate.
As for the argument that there are reasons for disproportionate rates of traffic stops, there is truth to this. Police do, of course, have to rely on policing strategies. In the course of their day-to-day work on the ground, police pick up on particular trends and common occurrences. One strategy that has become synonymous with law enforcement first developed out of a partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA long argued to leading police organizations that traffic violations and criminal activity were closely related. As an article cited on the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) website claims, “we have reason to believe that the people who engage in serious, chronic offending also engage in a variety of other, less serious forms of deviance; the individuals who commit armed robberies, or who respond to perceived slights with violence, also tend to engage in aggressive driving or commit other traffic infractions. Thus, traffic enforcement could provide some traction in controlling serious offenders, affording opportunities to apprehend and capture information about them, just as the enforcement of turnstile-jumpers in New York City proved to be effective in that city.” This idea has stuck, and it has led to multiple preemptive policing strategies. One such strategy is called Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS).
The Greeley Police Department is one of dozens of police departments nationwide to institute this strategy. DDACTS, according to an evaluation of the program done by Michigan State University's (MSU) School of Criminal Justice, allows “[l]aw enforcement agencies . . . to leverage limited resources to provide more effective and efficient services by analyzing crime and traffic data to identify areas with the highest overlapping incidence occurrence then deploying high-visibility traffic enforcement to those areas as a countermeasure to address both crime and traffic safety problems.”7 In other words, police departments analyze crash and crime data to see where the two overlap, as they’re often found to do, and then send patrols out into the overlapping areas with the highest rates of traffic and crime to maintain a higher police presence in and around these spots.
So, data, real-life examples and policing strategies all point us in the direction of believing that disproportionate rates of traffic stops can and do occur. The consequence of this, though, is that we end up with places (most likely low-income areas, too, as these areas are most susceptible to crime) where residents are far more likely to be pulled over going about their business than residents living in other areas. For example, in certain parts of Greeley, such as places east of 35th Avenue, it’s not uncommon to be pulled over for something as trivial as a broken taillight. Meanwhile, traffic west of 35th Avenue consistently moves along at 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit, with residents often pulling U-turns in the middle of busy streets (I personally know this because I’ve witnessed it numerous times at my job as a food service delivery employee delivering in west Greeley). So, it’s important to note that if you live east of 35th Avenue, the way you drive (or even the way you walk down the street) is going to be under greater scrutiny than you may be aware of.
1 Greeley Police Department, traffic stops, July-August 2017. Obtained from Greeley/Weld-County Criminal Justice Records.
2 Due to the independent nature and sole-ownership of this media venture, it was not possible to obtain more data on account of finances.
3 There are 14 tracts with the exception of 3 tracts. These 3 tracts are Tract 2, Tract 3 and Tract 7.04. Tract 2 and Tract 3 were provided without data, and Tract 7.04 an outlier. Tract 7.04 only accounted for 522 residents. The average population for each tract was 3,985. The median home value for Tract 7.04 is $178,700.
4 The U.S. Census Bureau’s Response Outreach Area Mapper was analyzed and reconstructed in order to specifically break down statistics based on geographic locations.
5 With the exception of Tract 3 and Tract 7.04, which were both outliers. Tract 3 did not report median income. University of Northern Colorado’s campus makes up the entirety of Tract 3. Tract 7.04 only accounted for 522 residents. The average population for each tract was 3,985. Including Tract 7.04 would bring the average median income for Greeley east of 35th Avenue to $38,923.37.