Not wearing a bicycle helmet or driving with expired tabs will no longer be a primary reason for a cyclist or motorist to be stopped by Seattle police officers, interim police Chief Adrian Diaz said in a Friday letter to the city’s inspector general.
“These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” Diaz wrote.
The letter about deprioritizing some low-risk traffic violations, posted on the Seattle Police Department’s online blotter, is addressed to Inspector General Lisa Judge and describes continuing conversations among Judge’s office, elected officials, members of the Police Department, the Seattle Department of Transportation, the Seattle Office of Police Accountability, attorneys and others.
“You and your team have proven to be engaged thought partners in how to improve public safety in Seattle, with a focus on equity and effectiveness. It is an example of how government and oversight can and should work,” Diaz wrote.
Diaz said he is in “complete agreement” with the need to deprioritize low-risk public safety violations and that police officers will no longer regard these four minor violations as primary reasons to make traffic stops:
■ Expired or missing vehicle registration (the sticker or “tab” displayed in the top right corner of a license plate on the back of a vehicle);
■ Vehicles without a front license plate (vehicles must still have a rear license plate);
■ Items hanging from rearview mirrors or cracked windshields (officers will still enforce visual obstructions such as snow, fog, nontransparent material and shattered windshields);
■ Bicycle helmet violations.
The four violations don’t affect safety on streets or sidewalks and financial penalties for those violations may disproportionately fall on those unable to pay, the chief’s letter says. However, police can still enforce those four violations if another primary violation leads to a traffic stop.
Diaz said the work group assembled by Judge’s office also recommended deprioritizing primary enforcement for equipment violations (such as burned-out taillights) but said in the letter that for pedestrian and driver safety, police can’t just let those issues go. The department is already working on addressing equipment repairs for people who can’t afford to pay for them, the letter says.
In May, Judge sent Diaz a letter addressing violations of the city’s bicycle helmet law, noting concerns about disproportionate enforcement, especially among Black, Native and homeless riders.
The discussions with SPD, which have included representatives from groups such as the ACLU, Central Seattle Greenways, Equal Rights Washington and Public Health – Seattle & King County, grew from there and resulted in the changes Diaz announced Friday, Judge said in a phone interview.
Back in February, for instance, Central Seattle Greenways, which advocates for safe streets in the Central District and on Capitol Hill, addressed the issue of bike helmets on its website:
“We believe that unnecessary contact between police and people who bike should be minimized, and that Black, Indigenous, and homeless riders should not disproportionately bear the burden of helmet citations in Seattle. While helmets can reduce head injuries in some crashes, we are concerned that the helmet law does more harm than good.”
Judge said more changes are in the works for what she described as a “rolling project” to reduce traffic stops and potential negative interactions between officers and members of the community.
“I think it is one way to start confronting disparity in enforcement,” she said. “This is the first set of violations where there isn’t a strong nexus to safety. [Not enforcing them is] not going to make people less safe as pedestrians or motorists but they will reduce negative interactions with a police officer and the danger that can sometimes erupt in those situations.”