Reevaluating traffic stops in NASHVILLE

The Policing Project was invited by the Nashville Mayor’s Office to examine potential racial disparities and overall effectiveness of a common policing tactic—traffic stops as a crime fighting tool. This work followed two events in 2016-2017 that focused public attention on policing in the city: the October 2016 publication of the Gideon’s Army report, which pointed to racial disparities the number of traffic stops conducted by the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department; and the February 2017 shooting death of Jocques Clemmons.

The Policing Project, in partnership with the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, performed a thorough cost-benefit analysis assessment of the use of traffic stops to address crime—the first study of its kind in the nation—which was presented before the city council and the public in November 2018.

[Listen: Policing Project’s Nashville traffic stop study featured on NPR Morning Edition national broadcast]

Are traffic stops effective in addressing crime?

Our assessment found there are indeed notable racial disparities in traffic stops in Nashville. These disparities are higher for traffic stops around non-moving violations, such as broken taillights or expired tags. MNPD explains these racial disparities in traffic stops on the grounds that officers go where the crime is, and that in Nashville, high-crime neighborhoods tend to have larger minority populations. Our assessment bears this out. However, even controlling for crime, unexplained racial disparity in traffic stops still remains.

Our report further concludes that traffic stops are not an effective strategy for reducing crime. In particular, the MNPD’s practice of making large numbers of stops in high crime neighborhoods does not appear to have any effect on crime.

The Policing Project report offered steps to address racial disparities and improve community-police relations, including encouraging MNPD to:

  • Reduce the number of traffic stops

  • Acknowledge black residents have been disproportionately affected by MNPD’s stop practices

  • Monitor racial disparities on an ongoing basis

  • Redeploy officer resources toward more effective crime-fighting tools

  • Consider adopting a Neighborhood Policing strategy

  • Post its department policies online

  • Conduct a review of certain key policies such as use of force

  • Conduct a review of training around use of force, traffic stops, and procedural justice

  • Adopt a body camera policy with attention to transparency regarding the release of footage

As part of this work, the Policing Project spoke with dozens of Nashville residents about their experiences with policing. MNPD provided the necessary data, and has from the beginning shown a strong commitment to re-evaluating its traffic stop strategies and developing alternatives that can achieve public safety with fewer social costs.