Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome M. Jeanette Pitts to the blog as an author. Jeanette is a Legal Research Specialist at the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab.
According to a report by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles, there were over 250,000 traffic crashes in 2021 (276,026, to be exact). Even when crashes involving fatalities and injuries are removed from that figure, the number of crashes involving only property damage still hovers at 200,000. A glance at past year figures and the five-year average reveals that the number of crashes involving only property damage has been over 175,000 for several years.
Why do these numbers matter? Traffic crashes use a lot of law enforcement time. After a crash, emergency services are contacted and first responders arrive on scene. Medical professionals treat any injuries and law enforcement officers investigate the incident and make arrests or issue citations, if any offenses have been committed. Given the large number of crashes, this activity uses a lot of law enforcement resources. Some have argued that, especially for crashes involving only property damage, well-trained, non-law enforcement professionals could handle these matters, allowing law enforcement to redirect their focus to more pressing public safety issues.
This is exactly what cities across North Carolina now can do. On June 23, Governor Cooper signed S.L. 2023-52, which became effective on that date. The new law, which will be codified as N.C.G.S. § 160A-499.6, allows cities to employ and allow civilian personnel to investigate crashes involving only property damage. Among other things, investigators must be trained at the North Carolina Justice Academy and then with a law enforcement officer for at least four weeks. Investigators will not be issued weapons and do not have authority to make arrests. Their reports will be admissible in court. Importantly, the law states that civilian traffic investigators may not “replace . . . or otherwise reduce the number of sworn law enforcement officers employed by a city.”
Using non-law enforcement personnel to respond to calls for service is not a new practice. As the Lab is discovering in The Alternative Responder Project, many North Carolina jurisdictions already use non-law enforcement personnel to respond to calls for service involving social issues such as homelessness and mental health and substance use crises. Nor is it a novel concept to limit law enforcement involvement in administrative traffic issues. As the School’s Legal and Policy Research Associate Emily Roscoe summarized here, jurisdictions in North Carolina and across the country have made legal and policy changes limiting law enforcement involvement in traffic violations
At the Lab, we’ll be watching for data on the use and effectiveness of civilian traffic investigators. If you’re in a community that implements this practice, please reach out—we’d love to speak with you. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.