An OPD patrol vehicle stops traffic while a car is towed away after an accident on the I-580 freeway exit in Fruitvale. Credit: Amir Aziz / The Oaklandside

Since The Oaklandside began surveying readers last September to gather opinions about our city’s dangerous roadways, we’ve heard from almost 150 residents who’ve weighed in on topics ranging from potholes to roadway design. One recurring theme has been traffic-law enforcement, or a perceived lack thereof: About a third of all respondents have told us they don’t feel there are enough police officers on the streets enforcing laws against speeding, red-light running, and other dangerous moving violations.

Oakland’s dangerous roadways

This article is part of our special series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.

Marcella Cortez, a resident of the Laurel District, told The Oaklandside she “couldn’t even describe” Oakland Police Department cars if she tried because she simply doesn’t see them. Jasmine Gonzales, an Arroyo Viejo neighborhood resident, said the streets feel like a “free for all, a land of lawlessness.” And Alexandra Hackett, an East Oakland designer, said she sees cars constantly speeding, tailgating, or passing illegally in Bancroft Avenue’s bike lanes. She rarely sees police enforcing the law.

Clearly, some Oaklanders would like traffic laws to be enforced more regularly. But the survey responses also beg some important questions: Just how much traffic enforcement are Oakland police actually doing? If the answer is not very much, why? And if the police were to pull more people over for driving infractions, would that make the streets noticeably safer or just create other problems?

We looked at the most recent data, talked to the police department and to residents, and interviewed traffic-stop experts to learn more.

OPD does enforce traffic laws, to an extent. But it’s a big city

The Oakland Police Department collects information about every vehicle stop carried out by an officer. This data shows that OPD gives out thousands of citations for minor traffic infractions each year, on top of the enforcement of more serious traffic violations that lead to misdemeanors and felonies. 

Some of the minor infractions OPD has cited people for in the last couple of years include driving while using a cellphone, illegal u-turns, and failure to stop at a sign. Other vehicle stops were initiated because a car was listed as stolen or suspected of being involved in a crime, like a robbery. In the last quarter of 2021, 48% of all OPD vehicle stops were for moving violations, more than any other reason.

But traffic stops conducted by OPD have dropped drastically over the past couple of years. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 31 of 2021, the most recent date for which data is available, OPD carried out approximately 2,600 traffic stops for moving violations and wrote 2,200 citations. This is way down from the same nine-month period in 2020, when OPD made 4,884 stops and issued 2,988 citations for moving violations. 

Before 2020, OPD stopped even more people and issued much higher numbers of traffic citations, in large part because the department had not yet implemented racial equity changes that de-prioritized traffic stops as a policing method. There have also been fewer vehicles on the road in the last 22 months because of COVID quarantine and isolation restrictions. 

Still, if OPD makes thousands of vehicle stops each year, why are people not seeing them? 

Sergeant Greg Bellusa of OPD told The Oaklandside the reason is that the city is physically too large to adequately cover with the number of officers it employs. In December 2021, a string of retirements and resignations had left OPD with a reported 676 sworn officers. According to an OPD spokesperson, 240 are currently staffed to the patrol division. But only 105 are deployed per day, split across three shifts. This means there are about 35 patrol officers on Oakland streets at any given time, covering the city’s 78 square miles.  With 2,600 traffic stops in the first three quarters of 2021—about nine stops per day—it’s clear why people don’t notice traffic laws being enforced. 

Officers who theoretically could be pulling people over for traffic violations are usually busy doing other things like responding to shootings, assaults, and robberies, and taking police reports for other crimes, added Bellusa. 

One solution, he proposed, would be to bring back dedicated traffic-enforcement units, something OPD does not currently have. “We need several squads of traffic officers out there,” Bellusa said. “There’s just not enough to keep up with flagrant traffic violations. People are driving in the bicycle lane, driving in the bus lane, people going right through red lights sometimes.”

Relying on the state to patch holes in OPD’s traffic enforcement operations

Oakland has struggled to maintain a dedicated traffic unit for more than a decade. But the city has occasionally used grants from the California Office of Traffic Safety to pay for a small amount of traffic enforcement. 

In November 2020, the city announced the latest in these grants, $500,000 that will be used to reduce dangerous roadway behavior through increased enforcement. Bellusa said the unit will be staffed by existing officers who will work overtime, in addition to their current assignments like patrol. According to the city’s grant application, traffic enforcement is “not the primary focus of OPD’s patrol officers,” and cops will only conduct traffic enforcement “as time permits.” The department’s main focus, said Bellusa, will remain on homicides, which have risen dramatically in Oakland since the onset of the pandemic. 

The city has also at times requested California Highway Patrol officers for additional policing. Last Sept. 10, Mayor Libby Schaff, under pressure to take action on public safety amid rising gun violence, led a decision to authorize the use of CHP officers on Oakland streets. At the time, she said the agency’s presence would also improve traffic enforcement.. According to data CHP provided to The Oaklandside, the agency carried out 192 stops and wrote 143 citations over the three weekends its six officers worked Oakland’s streets.

Some residents welcome the extra traffic policing and state funding, even if that support is relatively modest. One of them is Ryan Lester, a resident of the Clinton neighborhood and a former member of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. 

“I’m excited to hear that the city is getting a small amount of state funding to reduce and deter the driving behaviors that cause a majority of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in the city,” Lester said.

But state grants alone won’t bring significant change, he added. Lester argued in a recent op-ed for Streetsblog that no matter how well the grant-funded operations go over the next year, there will simply not be enough officers on the street to make people think twice about speeding or running red lights.         

According to Bellusa, the last time OPD operated several traffic units, in the mid to late 2000s, it had three squads of about eight traffic officers, each working different shifts to cover the city seven days a week. 

As late as 2013, the city was issuing over 21,000 citations each year for red-light running, but many of these tickets were written by automated red-light cameras, which were discontinued that year. By 2020, the number of citations for this offense had nosedived to 540.

Tim Weisberg, an OTS public affairs officer, told The Oaklandside in an email that Oakland received its latest grant because of its significant traffic safety problems. Among other factors, the state office took into account its official crash rankings, which sort cities based on their traffic safety issues “based on population, crash trends, vehicle miles traveled and other factors.” 

Oakland was ranked the sixth most dangerous city in the state in 2019, in terms of the number of people killed or injured in collisions. Oakland had 2,431 traffic victims, right behind cities like Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Stockton. Oakland ranked first in deaths or serious injuries caused by hit-and-runs, and second in deaths and serious injuries affecting elderly pedestrians aged 65 and older. The city ranked second for crashes that happen at night, and those that injure motorcycle riders.

“The sheer numbers, city size, and police personnel size show a need for supplemented traffic operations to increase safety,” Weisberg said.        

Collisions have declined in recent years, but likely because of non-police interventions

OPD says its efforts to prevent collisions focus on drunk driving and other serious driving actions that cause them. Over the next year, several units that are part of the new grant-funded operations will conduct “saturation patrols” to try to catch people who are driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, while other units will work on speeding enforcement and traffic-safety education programs. 

The biggest chunk of grant money, about $240,000, will pay for a traffic enforcement collaboration with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office focused on common traffic violations. Enforcement will take place on Oakland’s high-injury network of roadways identified by the city’s Department of Transportation, where a high number of traffic fatalities and injuries occur.

Whether or not OPD’s enforcement operations will actually deter or otherwise prevent people from breaking traffic laws, however, is an open question. There’s also evidence that Oakland’s recent dip in collisions may have a lot more to do with non-police changes.

Based on data compiled from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System database by Robert Prinz, the education director for Bike East Bay and a former member of Oakland’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, the number of collisions that caused pedestrian deaths and serious injuries declined in recent years at exactly the same time the number of OPD traffic stops also fell. For example, between 2017 and 2019, traffic stops dropped from 31,528 to 14,644 while serious injury or fatality crashes involving pedestrians declined by 11% and those involving bicyclists declined by 56%. 

Prinz attributes this difference not to police stops, but to the Oakland Department of Transportation’s focus on improving road infrastructure. Paving bad roads, adding new traffic signals at intersections, and narrowing vehicle lanes to slow down fast drivers are some of the methods the department is currently implementing. 

Traffic enforcement has led to racial profiling

OPD told The Oaklandside that another reason there have been fewer traffic stops and citations issued in the last few years is that the department shifted its vehicle-stop policies to reduce incidents of racial profiling.

In 2016, Stanford psychology Professor Jennifer Eberhardt studied traffic and pedestrian stops carried out by OPD and found that the department was engaging in racially biased policing, targeting Black people for stops at much higher rates than other racial groups and treating them differently than other groups during encounters. Eberhardt came up with recommendations to improve relations with residents, including discouraging stops for cars without plates, expired tags, or broken tail lights, among other tips.

Larisa Casillas, a director at Urban Habitat, an Oakland social justice advocacy organization, agrees with the recent changes to OPD’s traffic-stop policy. She said changing Oakland’s street design to narrower lanes is a more effective way of preventing collisions than putting more traffic cops on the streets, and the city’s recent effort to increase traffic enforcement through state grants is misguided. 

“It’s appalling these activities are being presented as increasing traffic safety. The efforts listed on the [$500 K grant] will only target BIPOC drivers,” Casillas told The Oaklandside in an email. “What we need to do is look at how infrastructure changes will slow down traffic, such as adding speed bumps, traffic circles, and making certain streets one-way.”

An East Oakland resident named Joy, who declined to use her last name because of privacy concerns and who suffered a recent car collision at an intersection, said most enforcement presents itself in Black and brown communities. “The DUI checkpoints are usually in low-income neighborhoods. They’re not doing them at the bars downtown [where all people are drinking],” she said.

North Carolina Professor Frank Baumgartner, one of the country’s experts on traffic stops, told The Oaklandside it’s hard to separate increased enforcement from the history of biased policing. 

Baumgartner, who has studied millions of stops, said it’s “in the DNA” of officers to use traffic code law to look for unrelated criminal activity when performing a stop, and that it leads to innocent Black and brown people losing trust in the police. This is because there are more of them experiencing humiliating traffic stops than white people. For example, Black people in the U.S. are 115% more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than white people. 

“Since every driver is pretty much violating some law at all times, especially speeding, your car is a crime scene, and the police can stop you for anything,” Baumgartner said in an interview. “So there’s a danger to equitable policing with every variable, such as not having state license plates. It leads to police using traffic laws to stereotype.” 

Baumgartner said traffic enforcement programs could work if they focused on traffic safety and nothing else. 

While the city considers enforcement options to lower collisions, residents continue to be concerned about how their loved ones may be affected. Joy, the East Oakland resident, said she worries about her daughter, who often walks around her middle school in the Dimond district. Joy said the only thing she can do is implore her daughter to always be aware of her surroundings—because others won’t be.

“People cross streets while they’re on their phone. But they need to pay attention to how people drive. You let them do their thing. You step back so you can react faster,” she said.

Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.