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Car Culture Dramatically Increases Number of Cop Confrontations

by Matt Clarke

In the early 20th century, mass production of automobiles caused a fundamental shift in American culture. One aspect of the emergent Car Culture was an increased number of interactions between police and the public that was largely absent during the horse-and-buggy era. Many of the police interactions with Black citizens, that ended in violence or death which have been the subject of recent public scrutiny, involved cars.

Car Culture has also plunged the poor into a devil’s circle where a car is required to get a job but a job is needed to pay for a car (and the attendant costs of ownership). This effectively locks those with the least means into extreme poverty, preventing upward mobility of the most vulnerable members of society. Many have criminal records, which also complicates the quest for employment.

Those barely able to afford a car are vulnerable to exploitation by creditors with predatory lending practices. Following the Great Recession, auto loan debt doubled. It recently hit a record of $1.56 trillion, just shy of the total U.S. student loan debt.

Like the housing bubble, the car debt bubble was blown up by predatory lending practices targeting subprime loans, i.e., loans at high rates of interest to people who can only marginally afford them or can’t afford them at all. This has plunged millions of financially vulnerable people into an unbreakable cycle of unaffordable monthly car payments, followed by repossession and debt collection lawsuits, locking them into extreme poverty.

In their new book, Cars and Jails, NYU professors Julie Livingston and Andrew Ross describe how cars changed from America’s most important commodity into a tool for debt-driven extraction of wealth. They also expound on how, at over 20 million traffic stops each year, the car has become the most common setting for encounters with police.

Spencer Headworth traces the evolution of car cops in his new book, Rules of the Road. He describes how mass production of cars unleashed carnage on the streets, noting that during WWI, newspapers were continuously pointing out that cars were killing more people than the war. This prompted municipalities to expand police departments to include traffic control.

Prior to the advent of car cops, traffic flowed according to informal norms. Attempts to apply those norms to the exploding population of cars were seen as an informal invitation to race in the streets. The number of registered passenger cars increased 35-fold between 1910 and 1930, ending attempts at informal traffic control.

By 1906, August Vollmer, the Chief of Police for Berkeley, California, had established mobile bicycle patrols. By 1914, every cop in Berkeley had a Model T. This was the first mobile police force in the U.S.

Using tactics he learned during the Philippine-American War, Vollmer used the mobility to swarm trouble spots and quickly project overwhelming force. It was an early militarization of the police.

In the 1970s and 80s, cash-strapped municipalities turned to traffic control to generate revenue. Court fines and fees grew and continue to do so. In 1991, 25% of incarcerated people owed fines and fees. A study done in 2015, calculated the average court-related debt for incarcerated people was $13,607, while two thirds of the incarcerated population have an annual income below $12,000. Then, in the 1980s, states began suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debt, a sure way to cost the debtor their job. This shows how the financial burden of policing traffic falls more heavily on the poor.

Then private loan companies invented ways to get around the ban on debtors’ prison and incarcerate those who defaulted on their car loans. The courts played along, and once again, the burden was heaviest on the poor. Aren’t cars grand?   


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