What is the purpose of speeding traps?

Over spring break, my brother Rob and his friend took a road trip from Minnesota to California. When they were driving through South Dakota, my brother got pulled over for the first time since he got his license (he is currently a senior in college), and he sent the following text in my family’s group message:

“100 yards outside the Mount Rushmore parking lot I was pulled over by a park ranger car for two reasons. One was expired registration sticker for license plate and two was for going 35 in a 25 zone (though I will contest that to the grave, being that it was a downhill curve and I was fully braking and he was stopped there in a purposeful trap to catch people like that). Overall, a really shitty encounter because he was super rude, presumptive, and antagonizing. Gives me a lot of thoughts about the role of police and notions of what it means to have productive, community policing. Like issuing citations and fines should be done as means of deterring bad behavior, but what is the point of fining someone for forgetting to put new stickers on… like the car is registered, but we simply forgot.  In my opinion, that’s stupid and certainly not the point of law enforcement. Certainly doesn’t do good things for police relations with communities when they’re interrogating you, presuming you have marijuana in the car…. Long story short, he let us off with a warning for the speeding but we have a $80 citation for the plates.”

Rob’s text reminded me of our class discussions. His comments about the interaction with the officer relate to many of the topics we covered in class, and his experience offers us a concrete example to apply to our discussions.

In his text, Rob brings up the issue of community policing. He explains that the actions and tone of the officer did not foster a positive relationship. However, since the officer was stationed at Mount Rushmore, he represents the park. His actions create tension within the community of guests and staff. Acting rude towards guests causes the guests to remember the park in a negative way. It is true that the officer’s role is to keep the park safe but that does not justify him to target guests. An important way to keep communities safe is to have a friendly police presence. If the officer is looking to punish guests, people will not feel comfortable approaching the officer with a problem. This intimidation could potentially put the guests more at risk. According to my brother, the officer at Mount Rushmore was deliberately trying to catch people. He was supposedly positioned at the bottom of a hill and around the curve, waiting to pull over speeding cars. I understand that it could be extremely dangerous for people to drive fast around a blind curve, but it seems excessive for an officer to pull over someone who is braking and only driving 35 mph (assuming Rob gave an accurate description for how he was driving at the time he was pulled over). The situation made me wonder: what was the purpose of the police officer’s actions? What did he expect to gain from pulling my brother over for driving a little too fast down the hill and around the curve? Or what is the point of fining him for expired stickers on his license plate?

Thinking about these questions brought me back to the debate over Broken Windows policing. Applying my brother’s experience to the discussion on Broken Windows policing further reveals the theory’s flaws. According to the theory, cracking down on minor offenses will prevent major offenses. In the case of my brother, neither ticketing him for speeding nor fining him for expired stickers will prevent him from committing a felony in the future. If anything, it may only make him drive with extreme caution when driving down a hill and around a curve. But, if Rob were to commit a felony, this one speeding ticket or fine would not stop him.

Rob’s description of his interaction with the officer also exemplifies the discrimination associated with Broken Windows policing. He said the officer interrogated him, assuming he had marijuana in the car. My brother and I have a very close relationship, so I know he has never smoked marijuana and would not have it in the car. If an officer was rude and presumptuous towards my brother, who is a young white male, I can only imagine how an officer with a similar attitude might interact with a person of color. Rob’s experience with the officer serves as an additional example for how Broken Windows policing is a broken theory. Cracking down on minor offenses is unlikely to prevent future felony crimes and can serve to facilitate discrimination by officers. Ultimately, my brother’s experience brings us back to the question around which our entire class revolves: what is the role of police officers?

One thought on “What is the purpose of speeding traps?

  • May 5, 2017 at 6:57 pm
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    In this situation with your brother, I think Rumbaut and Bittner would say that the police was acting in a “police – invoked law enforcement” role. Rumbaut and Bittner theorize that police are less likely to use discretion in these cases, but I think your brother’s experience shows that was not the case. I wonder if the police was being motivated by a quota? Still, there is no excuse for police to be rude to civilians when they should just do their job. I agree with you and your brother that it does not help community relations.

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