Gabe Klein, second from right, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen Ameya Pawer and Pat Dowell in 2012 Credit: Richard A. Chapman

January was a month of grim statistics. We finished off the year with 783 homicides, according to the ChicagoTribune‘s most recent count. And last week, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Chicago Police Department disclosed that 113 people died in traffic crashes on our city streets last year, including 44 pedestrians and six bicyclists. A preliminary analysis by the Department of Public Health found that residents facing economic hardship suffer crash fatalities at a rate nearly twice as high as those who don’t. So traffic violence, like gun violence, is a social justice issue.

On top of all this, the U.S. Department of Justice released its report January 13 outlining widespread civil rights abuses stemming from the Chicago Police Department’s use of force.

The Chicago Department of Transportation has previously stated that traffic enforcement efforts related to the city’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate crash deaths will be concentrated in parts of town that are most impacted by serious and fatal collisions. These are largely the same lower-income south- and west-side neighborhoods where most shootings take place. But, as the DOJ report outlines, these communities are already plagued by police abuses, so there’s the potential for an increase in traffic stops to make that problem worse.

As I considered these issues last week, I recalled an off-the-record conversation I had with former Chicago transportation commissioner Gabe Klein in August 2013, a few months before he resigned from the job. Klein has now granted me permission to talk about that discussion.

Our conversation took place during the thick of the backlash against the city’s automated enforcement program, including hostility from south- and west-side aldermen and their constituents who viewed the $100 traffic camera tickets as an unjust hardship. During our talk back then, Klein briefly discussed a law-enforcement approach based on the theory that curtailing truly dangerous driving in high-crime neighborhoods could also help prevent other serious crimes, including gun violence. This was among the reasons Klein now says he pushed for the speed camera program, which debuted that summer.

Klein’s now a Washington, D.C.-based transportation consultant (and a board member of Streetsblog Chicago’s parent organization). Free of the strictures of political life, he was willing to talk openly by phone last week about this strategy, which, as commissioner, he unsuccessfully petitioned the CPD to try.

Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, as it’s called, was conceived by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice and outlined in a March 2014 report. This approach encourages officials to analyze the locations and times when crashes, crimes, and calls for service occur. Using this information, officials can identify “hot spots”—locations and times when serious incidents are likely to occur in the future.

The report advises police departments to target these problem areas with highly visible traffic enforcement efforts, such as posting officers at intersections or installing red light or speed cams, to deter various types of crimes.

Not only is this approach a more efficient use of police work hours, it also helps avoid profiling, according to the report: “As opposed to traditional person-based policing, DDACTS. . . has a stronger evidence base and raises fewer ethical and legal problems.”

Before he left town, Klein was in talks with the feds about piloting the model in Chicago, he says. But he also says there wasn’t a lot of interest from the police department, which is why the data-driven approach was never tried here.

“We didn’t have much luck because they were so focused on dealing with ‘serious’ crime, and there’s often a view that traffic policing is sort of the lowest form of policing and the police have ‘real’ problems to address,” he says.

However, Klein argued, when reckless driving is tolerated, it creates a general atmosphere of lawlessness.

“As long as the car is king and you can drive however you want and not face any repercussions, it creates sort of a Wild West situation,” he says.

“There’s often a view that traffic policing is sort of the lowest form of policing and the police have ‘real’ problems to address.”

—Former transportation commissioner Gabe Klein

Police spokesman Frank Giancamilli couldn’t immediately verify whether CDOT discussed the data-driven DDACTS model with the CPD while Klein was commissioner, and wouldn’t comment on whether the police department is in favor of this approach. He instead referred me to remarks by police superintendent Eddie Johnson from a January 1 press conference in which Johnson identified “targeted, data-driven enforcement” as one of the “three pillars” of the department’s crime strategy, along with addressing the flaws in sentencing guidelines for repeat gun offenders and better community engagement.

Likewise, CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey didn’t immediately confirm whether his department discussed the data-driven approach with police when Klein was commissioner. Asked whether CDOT currently endorses that federal policing model, Claffey said the transportation department couldn’t comment on CPD strategy. Still, Claffey made clear that CDOT is broadly interested in approaches that factor in data.

“We’re committed to ramping up this data-driven approach through the Vision Zero program,” he said via e-mail.

While the feds’ data-driven strategy was never implemented in Chicago during his tenure, Klein thinks it should be now.

“There are direct correlations between [traffic violations] and more serious crime,” he says, “so a holistic approach needs to be taken on this front.”

Some transportation justice advocates urge caution before using increased traffic enforcement as a crime-fighting strategy, because zero-tolerance enforcement campaigns typically result in police disproportionately ticketing and jailing African-Americans and Latinos after traffic stops for minor offenses.

Klein calls concerns like these “very valid” and acknowledges that balancing Chicago’s need for safer streets with the legal and moral imperative to respect residents’ civil rights is a complex issue.

“The Chicago Police Department needs to reform itself, period,” he says. “If they keep doing things the way they’ve been doing them, [increased traffic enforcement] is not going to work.”

But Klein believes that if Chicago adopts the federal government’s place-and-time-based, data-driven enforcement strategy, it could make a positive difference on all fronts.

If police opted for more officers patrolling on foot or bikes rather than in squad cars in addition to the data-driven model of policing, Klein argues, this could help improve relations between the police and residents.

“That way the police are there as more of a friend of the community, being proactive rather than reactive,” he says.

After checking out the DDACTS report and discussing it with Klein, I’m convinced that the approach makes sense. Local leaders should give the model a second look in conjunction with the city’s Vision Zero efforts. While there were almost seven times as many homicides as crash fatalities in Chicago last year, this tactic could address both problems more effectively, while also making policing more just.

For his part, Klein says that although he’s in D.C., “I’m definitely rooting for Chicago.”   v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.