Daunte Wright was pulled over for expired plates, although he told his mother it was because an air freshener hung from his rearview mirror.
Sandra Bland was pulled over for failing to use her turn signal.
Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight.
You know what happened next. The two men were shot dead by police, and Bland died in jail a few days after she was verbally abused by the Texas state trooper who screamed, “I will light you up!” when she refused to get out of her car.
None of these Black citizens posed a threat to public safety. And while it’s true that George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was not instigated by a traffic stop, the idea that someone should die after allegedly trying to pass a fake $20 bill should shock — and has shocked — our consciences.
Most American drivers eventually come into contact with police as a result of traffic stops, and most don't have to fear for their lives. But there is every reason for people of color to feel unsafe when they see red lights in their rearview mirrors.
Emboldened by court decisions, police officers have virtual carte blanche.
In 1996, the Supreme Court said as much, University of Arkansas legal scholar Jordan Blair Woods told me. “They said, ‘We don’t care why officers conduct traffic stops. As long as they have probable cause like a traffic violation, they have grounds for pulling drivers over.'” Officers also have the right to order everyone out of a car.
“The Supreme Court has viewed traffic stops as a momentary inconvenience,” said Woods, “but it’s a symbol of fear, uncertainty and intimidation.”
The courts have also bought into the upside-down myth that traffic stops are extremely dangerous for police.
Woods examined 10 years of incident reports for routine vehicle stops by police in Florida. Estimating conservatively, he said, the rate for a “felonious killing of an officer” was only 1 in every 6.5 million stops. The rate of assault resulting in serious injury to an officer was only 1 in every 361,111 stops, and the rate of minor assault — things like slapping at a cop’s hand — was 1 in every 6,959 stops.
By contrast, a Washington Post database on police killings, created after the upheaval that followed Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Mo., found that 11% of all fatal police shootings in 2015 occurred during traffic stops. One hundred motorists were killed, and 1 in 3 of those was Black, despite Black people constituting only 18% of the country’s population that year.
Reams of academic research demonstrate racial bias in policing when it comes to traffic stops.
At Stanford University, Hearst Professional in Residence Cheryl Phillips, a veteran investigative journalist, led a study in collaboration with data scientists that examined 95 million traffic stop records by 56 different agencies between 2011 and 2018. They analyzed 113,000 stops that occurred around 7 p.m. Depending on the time of year, it was either dark or light outside.
They found Black drivers are less likely to be pulled over by police at night, when a “veil of darkness” obscures the color of their skin.
“It’s completely counterintuitive,” Phillips told me, “but that is indeed the case. If you are going to be out driving, if you are Black, it’s better to be out after dark than before dark.”
Stanford social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt, who studies implicit bias, discovered that Oakland police not only spoke less respectfully to Black motorists, but were far more likely to handcuff, search and arrest African Americans. (In fact, she found that the race of a motorist could usually be determined just by analyzing the words officers spoke.) To its credit, the Oakland Police Department adopted dozens of her recommendations, and traffic stops have plummeted, though they continue to be disproportionately high for Black drivers.
Woods has proposed creating traffic agencies with monitors empowered to stop vehicles for traffic violations and issue tickets. They would not be armed, they would not be able to detain, search or arrest.
As he wrote recently in the Washington Post: “Their basic training would include violence prevention, verbal de-escalation tactics and self-defense strategies.”
Last month, the progressive city of Berkeley approved a package of reforms aimed at addressing racial disparities in policing. Among their plans: deprioritize stops for low-level offenses and focus on dangerous driving. The city is also considering creating a special unit that would respond to mental health calls and perhaps even creating a new transportation department that would, as Woods has suggested, put civilians in charge of traffic enforcement. (The Berkeley Police Assn., the union that represents officers, was not happy about the proposals, claiming it would make the city less safe.)
Some legal scholars and civil rights activists have embraced abolishing police departments entirely, since their practices continue to be infected by their origins as slave patrols and union-busters.
“I am a police abolitionist,” TJ Grayson, a third-year Yale law student told me. Grayson co-authored a recent Washington Post essay with Yale law professor James Forman Jr. arguing that traffic stops are not an effective strategy for reducing crime, which is the pretext under which so many officers pull drivers over in the first place.
Grayson got interested in the subject, he told me, after his uncle was shot three times by a police officer in Marin County after being pulled over for a traffic violation. (His uncle survived.)
“We have to get police out of the business they are in now,” he told me. “We have approached social problems like mental illness and poverty with policing, rather than giving people resources they need.”
Seems pretty extreme, and polls show that most Americans oppose the idea of “defunding the police.” But nearly half think reforming police by redirecting some of their budgets to social services is a good idea.
Why not start with ending the practice of police stops for minor problems such as broken taillights and expired tags? Too often, they end in tragedy.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.