Working with Law Enforcement Officers

Law enforcement officers are the only ones who can enforce laws for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and it is necessary to gain police buy-in to assure a successful campaign.

Police officers participate in a bicycle safety program.That can be a challenge, as most police officers did not get into law enforcement to make the world a safer place for pedestrians and bicyclists. Still, most officers did sign up to help people, and as everyone knows, traffic enforcement is a big part of the job. And pedestrians and bicyclists are legitimate parts of "traffic."

There are two key criteria for getting law enforcement officers to take up the cause of enforcing pedestrian and bicycle safety laws:

Crash Data – Officers are more likely to respond to a specific problem than a general concern. Numbers showing the frequency and severity of crashes are compelling figures to help gain law enforcement support. Furthermore, being able to pinpoint dangerous locations where crashes are more prevalent can help law enforcement officers better target their enforcement efforts.

Additional training – Police officers receive substantial training regarding the laws of their state and municipality and how to effectively enforce those laws. But little if any of that training focuses on pedestrian and bicycle laws and safety. Furthermore, drivers education programs provide little instruction on bicycle and pedestrian issues. The result is a large number of motorists and law enforcement officers are unaware of the laws and safety concerns surrounding pedestrians and bicyclists. Additional training for officers can help close that gap.

Providing Additional Training for Law Enforcement Officers

Law enforcement officers who have received quality pedestrian and bicycle training know how pedestrian and bicycle crashes happen. They know the role engineering, education, and enforcement can and should play in improving pedestrian and bicycle safety. They know which laws to enforce for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety and they are willing to enforce these laws.

Having an effective training program in place will ensure that law enforcement officers are knowledgeable of the state laws and local ordinances that apply to pedestrians and bicyclists. For example, Wisconsin has a pedestrian and bicycle law enforcement training course, called Enforcement for Bicycle Safety (EBS). This course teaches law enforcement officers various aspects of bicycle safety, which laws to emphasize with child and adult bicyclists and with motorists to reduce crashes, how to begin bicycle crash cause identification, and the importance of officers as front line, on-traffic-duty educators. For more information on training for law enforcement officers, visit the Training section.

Specialized police training should be given before implementing a pedestrian safety enforcement campaign, so the officers know their role and in the campaign and the goals and objectives of the campaign, and to refresh them on the pedestrian/motor vehicle laws.

Common Challenges in Partnering with Law Enforcement Agencies

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 and Bicyclists
    • Many law enforcement officers perceive that the pedestrian or bicyclist is at fault in most cases, because the pedestrian or bicyclist 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 or bicycle laws is to write pedestrians tickets. This type of unbalanced enforcement may be ineffective or even harmful in promoting a safe walking environment.
    • Training programs that address ways to enforce pedestrian and bicycle laws, incorporate research findings related to pedestrian and bicycle crashes, and highlight 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 and bicyclists. The training should be given to the officers who investigate pedestrian and bicycle 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 and Bicycle Enforcement
    • Some—not all—officers have little interest in any pedestrian and bicycle 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. Some officers lose interest in ticketing motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists 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 and bicycle 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 and bicycle 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 or bicycle 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 or bicycle 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.