Sacramento police use of traffic stops suggests safety not top priority


By: Robert J Hansen

Anokh Sohal, now a second year psychiatry resident at UC Davis, returned home late one August night in 2019.

He had just arrived at his downtown Sacramento apartment and was having trouble opening the entrance to the parking garage when a Sacramento police officer stopped and turned the blue and red lights on.

“The officer started asking me what I was doing and like he didn’t believe that I lived there,”Sohal said. “It made me nervous to answer because it felt like it didn’t matter what I told him.”

When Sohal managed to open the parking entrance, the officer didn’t apologize and went on his way.

“As a Siqe, it made me feel uncomfortable and worried about what they might do to anyone else that looks like me because they treat all brown people like me like a criminal,” Sohal said.

Law enforcement’s use of traffic stops are coming under new scrutiny after Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man was killed by police after being pulled over for expired registration in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on April 11.

Rashid Sadiqe, founder of the Law Enforcement Accountability Directive (LEAD), said it’s sad to see what happened to Daunte Wright.

Sadiqe said Daunte Wright did not have to be pulled over by armed police for expired registration.

“They don’t need to have a gun to make traffic stops,” Sadiqe said. “You never hear of a parking attendant getting attacked by anyone.”

Sadiqe said that local law enforcement have always misused traffic stops, invading people’s privacy and never have made black people feel safer while driving.

“They only use them to search and frisk black people for drugs, so they can ask if you’re on probation or parole,” Sadiqe said. “Police have never used traffic stops to make us safer.”

Sacramento police officers and Sacramento sheriff’s deputies conducted 27 thousand traffic stops for equipment violations in 2019. Fifty-two thousand traffic stops were made for reasons unrelated to traffic enforcement. 

This accounts for 45 percent of all traffic stops made by Sacramento law enforcement according to data from the California Department of Justice.

Around 27,000 traffic stops were made for equipment violations in 2019, making up 22 percent of all traffic related stops.

The Sacramento Police Department declined to provide a comment on Daunte Wright or on Berkeley’s new model of traffic enforcement.

Retired Lieutenant Raymond Foster said Wright had expired registration, had a warrant and shouldn’t have been resisting police.

“I know this isn’t popular but, if you don’t fight with the police then you’re probably not going to get shot,” Foster said.

Foster said he has always thought pretextual stops have been a problem because police have the authority to lie to people about why they were pulled over but expired registration is not 

“The gray area is when an officer uses a traffic stop for other reasons which is dangerous,” Foster said. “If the intent of a traffic stop is traffic safety, then it’s very good and we should do those more.”

Ray Lazada, retired SacCounty probation officer, said he was trained to put someone on the ground when putting on handcuffs and disagreed with some of the officer’s decisions.

“I don’t know if I would have used a taser in that situation,” Lazada said.

“The way they went about it, it didn’t speak to there being a huge safety alert,” 

“He didn’t try to fight back until the female officer said he had a warrant,” Lazada said. “The way they went about it, it didn’t seem that safety was not a major concern.”

According to Lazada, police are trained to make sure a subject’s hands are secured and to put subjects flat on their stomach when applying handcuffs.

 “Normally, everything is coordinated when serving a warrant and everyone is on the same page and it is done safely,” Lazada said. “They didn’t seem too prepared or that there was much of a plan.”

Lazada is confident that there is common ground and that there are solutions to improve policing.

“What worries me is that nothing happens with the opportunity that we have right now,” Lazada said.

In February, Berkeley passed a new model of traffic enforcement with the goal to remove armed police from traffic enforcement according to Darrell Owens, former co-executive of East Bay for Everyone.

Owens played a pivotal role in creating the proposal and said if Sacramento or any other city passed a proposal like Berkeley’s, state legislators would be more likely to support changing the law.

“A coalition of California cities could push to reform state law and remove armed police from traffic enforcement.” Owens said” We need support from state legislators to change state traffic enforcement laws which currently, legally can only be done by police.”

Owens said that Daunte Wright’s death seems to have reinvigorated Berkeley efforts and those working towards removing police from traffic enforcement.

“It felt like what we did was just going to be forgotten and until Daunte was killed, it wasn’t really being talked about,” Owens said. “Because of Daunte, now even more people are talking about it.”

Foster said that traffic stops are not the problem and safety on the highways is delicate so anytime they are left open to drivers can make for dangerous situations.

“Traffic stops on the basis of probable cause keep the community safe because police are looking for suspects related to a crime.” Foster said. “Even if the crime occurred four days ago, eight days ago it doesn’t matter,” Foster said. 

According to Foster, the problems with law enforcement are from poor leadership.

“I was hopeful when they started sacking chiefs of police and guys started resigning over the last year,” Foster said “I thought maybe now we would understand that people are doing this without the appropriate training or leadership.

Foster said unarmed police or civilians is a terrible idea and will lead to people getting hurt.

“It only takes one person to do something stupid for someone to get hurt,” Foster said.

Traffic stops, overwhelmingly, are the most common interaction between police and civilians, and have become a substantial source of racial and economic injustice according to research from the Stanford Law Review.

Traffic stops still remain the Berkeley Police Department’s largest source of activity according to research released by a Berkeley auditor

The Sacramento city council would need to pass a proposal similar to Berkeley’s approach to traffic enforcement, if it were to garner support from the state legislators according to Owens.

“The city should have a goal to remove armed officers from traffic enforcement,” Owens said.

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