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The King County Sheriff’s Office does not provide strategic direction for traffic enforcement and has not assessed whether its efforts align with overall King County values. Since March 2020, the number of traffic stops conducted by officers has declined in comparison to 2019 averages. However, this trend is not identical across Sheriff’s Office jurisdictions; by mid-2020, contract partners with dedicated traffic enforcement returned to a higher level of traffic stops in comparison with the rest of the Sheriff’s Office. Contract partners and Sheriff’s Office leaders cited safety as the primary reason for conducting traffic enforcement, but Sheriff’s Office management does not systematically assess whether its traffic enforcement activities increase safety, or whether there are disparities in how its officers conduct traffic stops. Without data-driven operational goals, the Sheriff’s Office may not be effective in addressing traffic safety risks.

Watch the presentation (15:48)

Summary

Traffic stops are the third most common patrol action taken by officers countywide. At the national level, research finds evidence of racial profiling and bias in traffic stops and arrests. One major study found that “police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias and point to the value of policy interventions to mitigate these disparities.” Accordingly, many jurisdictions, including Seattle, have taken steps to reduce or alter the way police engage in traffic enforcement. As King County transitions to an appointed Sheriff, information on where and why the Sheriff’s Office conducts traffic stops may be useful to policy-makers when they consider changes to traffic enforcement in King County, and what the effects of those changes may be on issues such as safety, equity, and officer training.

Since March 2020, the number of traffic stops conducted by the Sheriff’s Office declined in comparison to 2019 averages. Sheriff’s Office staff reported that the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in state law, and staffing shortages caused the decline. However, this trend was not identical across county jurisdictions; by mid-2020, contract partners with officers dedicated to traffic enforcement returned to a higher level of traffic stops in comparison with the rest of the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s Office staff cited safety as the primary reason for traffic enforcement, but management does not regularly assess whether its traffic enforcement activities have an impact on safety. It also does not examine whether there are disparities in how its officers conduct traffic stops. The Sheriff’s Office does not systemically collect demographic data for traffic stops, although this data is available for stops that result in a use of force. Using that limited data, we found that although few traffic stops resulted in a use of force, for those that did, White officers were more likely to use force upon Black motorists than motorists of other races.

The Sheriff’s Office does not identify strategies to help it attain its goals for traffic enforcement or assess whether its traffic enforcement efforts align with overall King County values, despite best practice and its own policy guidance. Regionally and nationally, jurisdictions are employing strategies to reduce the inequities that can result from traffic enforcement. However, identifying and implementing promising practices depends on aligning them with clear county goals and strategies.

We make recommendations for the Sheriff’s Office to improve data collection practices, improve the clarity and communication of its traffic enforcement goals, and provide more central support and guidance related to traffic enforcement.

Audit team

Justin Anderson, Grant Dailey, and Brooke Leary worked on this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at KCAO@kingcounty.gov.