Traffic control project strengthens public trust in police – News

Atlantic City, New Jersey – Nearly 85% of all police-initiated interactions with citizens occur as part of a traffic stop – this is by far the most common way the public comes into contact with the police.

A group of researchers led by Stockton University professors and students believe that improving this method of contact could improve the relationship between police and the public. Recent tragic incidents during traffic stops, including the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police in 2023 and the death of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, have caused trust in the police to drop to its lowest level since 1993, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“Current police training suggests that officers conduct the briefest interactions possible during traffic stops. Just keep it brief and let the driver drive,” said Nusret Sahin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Stockton. “I think we’re challenging that in a good way, because our results show that when officers spend more time, there are very positive effects from the citizen’s perspective.”

Nusret Sahin and Tai Bui

Nusret Sahin, assistant professor of criminal justice at Stockton (left), and Tai Bui, a Stockton student from Atlantic City, in an Atlantic City police car as part of the EPJETS program. Bui had the opportunity to interview motorists who agreed to participate in the program.

Sahin is the principal investigator of the Enhancing Procedural-Justness of Encounters Through Substantiation (EPJETS) project. He is joined on the research team by co-principal investigators Manish Madan, associate professor of criminal justice at Stockton, Joel Caplan, professor at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, and Rob Voigt, assistant professor of linguistics at Northwestern University.

The group announced its findings at a press conference on June 10 at the Stockton campus in Atlantic City, explaining, among other things, how the protocol:

  • Greater public trust in law enforcement and improved cooperation with the police.
  • Increased support for traffic monitoring and improved legitimacy of traffic controls.
  • The perception of police professionalism in relation to the use of body-worn cameras has changed.

The project is funded by a $702,956 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The research team conducted the project with the Atlantic City and Pleasantville police departments from October 2022 to June 2024. During that time, 1,423 drivers were stopped for speeding – 752 were in the control group, where officers gave citizens a standard brief interaction, and 671 drivers were in the experimental group with the new protocol. In this group, drivers received the following from police:

  • A procedural justice-focused script based on the message of dignity, respect, neutrality and fairness.
  • A brochure researched and designed by Stockton University students using risk terrain models that details the urban areas with the most traffic accidents.
  • A survey conducted by Stockton students on drivers’ opinions on the new protocol.
  • Access to the police officer’s body camera footage so that drivers could return and observe the interaction about a week later.

By providing the body camera footage, citizens would have seen how officers interacted with them and would have had the assurance that the traffic stop was recorded and could be viewed by the officer’s supervisor, Sahin said.

“Citizens are anxious about traffic stops. It’s a very stressful moment for some people,” he said. “We alleviate that stress. Officers just tell people, ‘This is for your safety.’ If you want a professional police service, if you want to build trust between police and citizens, then our protocol provides a simple and straightforward way to do that.”

Nusret Sahin

Sahin is the principal investigator of the EPJETS project, which is funded by a $702,956 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Atlantic City Police Chief James Sarkos said he was extremely proud and excited about his department’s involvement in the investigation, especially that procedural fairness was involved.

“This collaboration is an important milestone in our ongoing efforts to improve law enforcement practices through training and community engagement,” Sarkos said during the press conference. “Our collaboration with Dr. Sahin and Stockton University underscores our commitment to collaborating with academia. Through this partnership, we can use academic research to improve our practices, make our community safer, make our policing more effective, and help us stay at the forefront of modern policing techniques.”

Sarkos added that this is the first time that an authority has made video recordings of traffic checks available to drivers after they have been checked in order to test their effectiveness.

“We are proud that we not only serve our citizens but also take responsibility for our actions,” he said.

The provision of the footage had another surprising effect on citizens, said Sahin.

“The people who received our protocol and were offered access to the body camera footage perceived the police as more professional than the control group,” he said.

Another important aspect of the project is the involvement of students in conducting the research. Sahin said seven Stockton students completed tasks such as researching crime statistics, creating a safety brochure for drivers, downloading police bodycam videos, blurring faces or other identifying features, and then uploading the video to a website for citizens to view. The students also accompanied Stockton police officers and professors to interview drivers during stop-and-go operations.

“It was so interesting to work so closely with police officers and see how they interact with citizens,” said Karolina Kotula, who was equipped with a bulletproof vest and a fluorescent safety vest during the checks. “You think words don’t make a difference until you actually see how people react during an experimental check, where a police officer follows the script, and during a completely normal traffic check.”

Kotula, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice in December, said working on the project had a tremendous impact on her and changed her perception of police work so much that she is now on the path to becoming a police officer.

“With everything that’s going on today, with all the misunderstandings with the public and their perception of the police, this is going to have a huge impact on how they think about police officers and what they think of them,” said the Garfield native.

While both local police departments were pleased with the study’s results, Sahin believes EPJETS has potential implications for policing nationally. Over the next few months, he will compile a report on the findings in hopes of getting it published. He also plans to attend several upcoming conferences to share the findings, including the Police Security Expo in Atlantic City in late June and the National Institute of Justice Research Conference in Pittsburgh in the fall.

“Building trust between the police and the public is critical for effective policing and public safety,” said Sahin. “In this project, we tested whether the EPJETS model improves citizens’ attitudes and trust in the police, especially during traffic stops. Using robust research methodology, we concluded that the answer is yes.”

— Story by Mark Melhorn

EPJETS press conference

From left: Joel Caplan, professor at Rutgers University; James Sarkos, police chief of Atlantic City; Nusret Sahin, assistant professor at Stockton University; and Stacey Schlachter, acting police chief of Pleasantville.