Developing Partnerships with Law Enforcement

Local agencies, community members and groups (including pedestrian advocates), law enforcement agencies, public health/injury prevention professionals, and traffic safety organizations can all have a role in enforcement programs. Ideas for forming broad partnerships and coalitions are discussed in Organizing for Success. This section focuses specifically on things to do and to consider when developing partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Common challenges in partnering with law enforcement groups

As important as it is for agencies and communities to develop strong partnerships with law enforcement groups, there are bound to be challenges. An understanding of common challenges can help communities to begin addressing them through training programs, grant support, and other ways.

Misperceptions about pedestrians

Many law enforcement officers perceive that the pedestrian is at fault in most cases, because the pedestrian should have been more careful, or due to a misunderstanding about the crosswalk laws, etc. This is most obvious when it comes to investigating and reporting crashes, but law enforcement officers can also have a similar attitude when it comes to enforcing the law. Without some training, many law enforcement officers believe that the best (or only) way to enforce pedestrian laws is to write pedestrians tickets, such as for jaywalking. Some officers may even ticket people who "cut the corner" of the crosswalk to get to the sidewalk. This type of unbalanced enforcement may be ineffective or even harmful in promoting a safe walking environment.

Training programs that address other ways to enforce pedestrian laws and incorporate research findings related to pedestrian crashes and effective programs can help change these perceptions and attitudes. One effective method is to involve officers in pedestrian "sting" or "pedestrian decoy" operations, where they witness fellow officers, dressed as civilians, cross in crosswalks where drivers typically ignore pedestrian laws, and cite those drivers who violate the law. Courses on crash investigation can also be useful for changing officer's perceptions about pedestrians. The training should be given to the officers who investigate pedestrian crashes as well as the officers who enforce the traffic laws. Another way to change officer's attitudes is to provide them with films, such as AAA's Children in Traffic video, which provide insights into young pedestrians' behaviors, perceptions of traffic, and concerns.

Lack of interest in pedestrian enforcement

Some—not all—officers have little interest in any pedestrian issues, let alone traffic enforcement. Many officers are reluctant to stop a bicyclist or pedestrian because it "looks bad"—like the officer is harassing pedestrians and little kids on bikes, or could result in bad public relations. On the other hand, some narcotics officers have found that ticketing jaywalkers has been an effective strategy for stopping suspected drug dealers, so they often target pedestrians in high-crime areas. This does little to help pedestrian safety. Some officers lose interest in ticketing motorists or pedestrians if there is no judicial support and a high likelihood that the ticket will be dismissed. It is important to remember that a ticket that goes to court could mean that the officer has to show up to testify, which means they cannot be out performing other law enforcement activities. Thus, an effective enforcement program needs judicial support as well as support and incentives from within the law enforcement agency to motivate and engage officers in pedestrian safety issues.

Limited resources

Demands on a police department and the level of support departments can offer varies from community to community. Law enforcement agencies are stretched thin in most communities, and the typical response to requests for pedestrian enforcement support is "we don't have enough officers." However, there are ways to make the most of limited resources. The first step is to understand what local police resources exist. State police or highway patrols, sheriff departments, and local law enforcement agencies all may be able to provide resources and contribute to the enforcement program. Consider the following general types of law enforcement officers:

  • Traffic Enforcement Specialists—These officers are assigned to specialize in traffic enforcement. They respond quickly to traffic safety hot-spots, but may be called away to respond to crashes.
  • Community Action Officers (CAOs)/Precinct Officers—These officers are generally assigned to a specific portion of the city and work on problem areas. While they do not specialize in traffic enforcement, they can be called in for enforcement activities or to help coordinate with motor officers.
  • School Resource Officers (SROs)—Some police officers are assigned to schools and concentrate on special problems such as drugs, gangs, and other on-campus problems. They can also be used to help solve special traffic problems on or near the campus and can coordinate with the motor officers and CAOs.

Lack of long-term commitment

Many officers enjoy talking to people of all ages about safety, and they may be happy to take part in pedestrian safety speaking engagements at schools, offices, or other locations. However, these brief, one-time lectures or events are usually not enough to generate permanent changes in people's attitudes or behaviors related to pedestrian safety, and they are no substitute for concentrated and sustained enforcement. Those involved in an enforcement program must be aware of the importance of long-term commitment in order for the enforcement to be effective and successful.