Ending Unnecessary Traffic Stops That Can Kill

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traffic stop

Maryland traffic stop. Photo by LeafsHockeyFan via Flickr

Traffic stops are the most common interaction between the police and the public, with more than 50,000 people pulled over on a typical day. Yet for too many drivers – especially Black drivers, who are 20 percent more likely to be stopped – these interactions with the police can turn deadly.

In April, just miles from where Derek Chauvin’s trial was taking place, Daunte Wright was killed by police after being stopped for an expired license plate. Sandra Bland was pulled over for failure to signal a lane change, which led to her arrest. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later.

Philando Castile was killed by an officer in 2016 after being pulled over for a broken taillight.

portrait

Miriam Krinsky

Sadly, these cases are not anomalies; over 10 percent of the 1,126 police killings in 2020 began with a traffic stop. And a recent investigation found that over the past five years, police have killed more than 400 unarmed drivers or passengers who were not being pursued for any serious crime.

Most of these encounters simply didn’t need to happen in the first instance. Police and prosecutors – as well as local, state and federal leaders – can all take steps to end unnecessary non-public safety stops.

And some of them are beginning to engage.

In October, Philadelphia became the first major city to ban police officers from pulling drivers over solely for non-public safety stops like a broken taillight or expired registration.

These traffic stops for minor infractions – typically, conduct that has no impact on public safety and often isn’t even a crime – are justified by arguments that they are essential because they give police a chance to look for drugs or evidence of other crimes, without the constitutional basis to otherwise conduct a search.

Brendan Cox

Philadelphia joins Virginia, which became the first state to ban non-public safety stops earlier this year.

Local elected prosecutors across the country are also recognizing the danger and racial disparities inherent in traffic stops and are using their discretion to prevent these opportunities for fatal encounters with the police.

Yet they have been met with swift and vocal backlash.

Castile’s death spurred Ramsey County, MN Attorney John Choi to announce that he was ending the prosecution of cases resulting from non-public safety traffic stops. The Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association called his efforts “insulting.”

In San Francisco, after District Attorney Chesa Boudin said he would decline contraband charges resulting from traffic stops; the police union responded with fear-mongering suggesting – with zero support – that it would lead to more crime victims.

After Ingham County, Michigan Prosecutor Carol Siemon announced that she would not prosecute non-public safety stops nor pursue Michigan’s racially disparate “felony firearm” charges that simply pile on unnecessary statutory enhancements, she was viciously attacked by law enforcement leaders, some of whom even called for her resignation.

We need more criminal justice leaders to step up to the plate. And the federal government must join them. The New York Times noted that $600 million in federal funding incentives help fuel the proliferation of traffic stops.

The Biden administration’s commitment to reform in policing must end these ill-fated incentives. Likewise, municipalities must stop using ticket revenue to fund government services.

All the evidence shows that the dangers of these traffic stops – including exacerbating troubling racial disparities – significantly outweigh any potential benefit to public safety. And the problem is systemic across the country.

An analysis of nearly 100 million traffic stops nationwide found that racial bias leads people of color to be stopped, questioned and searched at higher rates than white people. And in some places, the disparities are particularly striking – a study of North Carolina stops found that Black people were 95 percent more likely to be stopped when factoring in that they drive 16 percent less than white people.

These stops rarely result in the discovery of any serious crime. In North Carolina, weapons were found in just one-tenth of 1 percent of incidents. And despite the fact that they are searched more frequently, Black drivers are actually less likely to be found with illegal contraband than white drivers.

It’s not just that these practices don’t stop serious crime. They also contribute to an erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, which necessarily undermines public safety.

People of color have often shared the fear they feel at seeing flashing lights in their rearview mirrors. Juanisha Brooks, who was pulled over and dragged from her car earlier this year, encapsulated this feeling when she aptly said, “I didn’t want to be another hashtag.”

It’s time for that fear to end.

Local governments, federal leaders, police and prosecutors all have the power to end many unnecessary encounters that too often turn deadly. We urge them to take action now, before more lives are lost.

Additional Reading: Traffic Stops Turn Deadly: Nearly 1 per week. The Crime Report, Dec. 16, 2021

Miriam Aroni Krinsky is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution and a former federal prosecutor. Brendan Cox is the former police chief of Albany, New York, and the director of policing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau.

3 thoughts on “Ending Unnecessary Traffic Stops That Can Kill

  1. Your article implies that Bland was jailed for a broken taillight. I doubt that is the case. I assume she had a warrant for her arrest–thus the taillight had nothing to do with her death. She would have been arrested eventually.

    The answer is pretty simple. If the legislature doesn’t want people pulled over for broken taillights, etc., take the laws off the books. My former home state used to have mandatory vehicle inspections once per year–maybe those could be brought back to avoid the situation of having many driving around with unsafe vehicles. But I also remember how unpopular those inspections were.

  2. Thin scholarship, at best. Start with both numerator and denominator. You’ll find that stops of the sort you focus on are a small percentage of the total, that is, most stops are uneventful and most people cooperate. Next, focus on the encounter’s progression from initially neutral to contentious, confrontational, to serious violence—again, these cases are a small percentage of the total. Non-compliance changes the nature of the stop; in other words, it’s no longer a traffic stop, but has morphed—principally because of non-compliance—into something more serious, dangerous, and potentially fatal. Then—and only then—examine the cop’s behavior as a possible contributor to mishandling the stop and subsequent non-compliance.

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