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Increasing traffic stops could reduce crashes, violent crime, Louisville police chief says

Traffic stops keep the roads safe, but law enforcement officials said it also gives them an opportunity to find illegal drugs and weapons.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Louisville Metro Police Department is making roughly half the amount of traffic stops now than they were a decade ago, and the police chief said this is contributing to the spike in violent crime.

LMPD Chief Erika Shields said increasing the number of traffic stops will help reduce crash-related injuries and deaths. She also said it could help lower Louisville's violent crime rate.

RELATED: 'Am I happy where we're at?' Erika Shields answers questions about her first year as police chief

When she was hired in January 2021, Shields she was reviewing violent crime data and realized a spike around 2019, which correlates with when LMPD changed its standard operating procedures for making traffic stops. 

LMPD changed its traffic stop protocol after a 2018 incident where officers pulled over Tae-Ahn Lea, an 18-year-old Black man.

Officers handcuffed him and searched his car. Police didn't find drugs or weapons during their search but did ticket Lea for making a wide turn. 

The dark blue line on the graph below shows a steep drop in how many traffic stops LMPD made starting in 2018, which is when officers conducted that search. At the same time, assaults and homicides in the city started to rise. 

Credit: LMPD

"It's not coincidental that violent crime soared when officers stopped doing any traffic," Shields said. 

Traffic stops keep the roads safe, but law enforcement officials said it also gives them an opportunity to find illegal drugs and weapons and can lead to them finding people who have warrants out for their arrest.

Before LMPD can increase the number of stops they make, they need to get more officers on the streets. 

"This is one of the key reasons I want to get our staffing up because I think this is something that impacts our community as a whole," Shields said. "It's very concerning when people think 100 miles per hour on the interstate is normal."

Shields acknowledged there was a pattern of racially targeted traffic stops made by LMPD.

"The data shows that all day long," Shields said. "If you are profiling and making traffic stops based on an individual's race, the neighborhood they're in or even profiling the car, that's unlawful."

Shields said she is working to make some changes so supervisors can check data on who individual officers are pulling over more easily.

"The collection of data of traffic stop data is not where it needs to be, but we have to coordinate to be allowed to do it with the state," Shields said. "I have to get permission from the state so that I can modify the actual system because we share a reporting platform. Then the second thing is we're working to hire civilians who can audit the body one cameras so we can get more information real-time."

Black Lives Matter Louisville organizer Chanelle Helm said she doesn't think increasing traffic stops will impact the Metro's violent crime rate.

"There aren't community members who are saying, 'Hey we need police to make traffic stops so we can stop crime,'" Helm said. "Nobody has ever said that and nobody is saying that. What we are saying is we need more preventative measures to prevent people from creating crime."

Helm, however, said she is happy to hear the chief is looking into ways to hold officers accountable for traffic stops they make. 

"This might help with the discrimination that we are seeing in this piece of policing and how policing is not working whatsoever," Helm said.

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