Ordinarily, no one should expect a traffic stop for a minor infraction like a broken taillight to turn deadly. But if you are Black, you know the horrific history of such stops. And there’s always another tragic reminder.
Perhaps the most ill-timed came in April when Daunte Wright, 20, was stopped outside Minneapolis for an expired license plate. Wright twisted away from an officer trying to handcuff him and slipped back into the driver’s seat. This was an unwise move, but not one that deserved the death penalty. Seconds later, Wright was shot and killed by another officer who, police said, thought she was firing her Taser, not her Glock handgun. She has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Wright’s death is the most recent in a series of needless killings of Black men stopped for the most picayune traffic violations. They include Philando Castile, fatally shot outside Minneapolis after a stop for a broken brake light; Walter Scott, shot in the back in North Charleston, S.C., as he ran from his car after a stop for a broken taillight; and Samuel DuBose, shot in the head after being pulled over for a missing tag in Cincinnati. Ending this national disgrace will take serious efforts.
Policing in Fayetteville, North Carolina
But how about starting with one simple change? What if police stopped pulling over drivers – Black or white – for technical infractions that have nothing to do with safety?
Fayetteville, North Carolina, tried that approach starting in 2013, when a new reform-minded police chief reined in stops for nonmoving violations. Over the next few years, the city saw positive results.
For years, traffic stops in North Carolina, like many places across the country, showed racial disparities. Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be pulled over by police, and then twice as likely to be searched, according to a study of 20 million North Carolina traffic stops over more than a decade.
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Often, the stops seemed little more than excuses to search someone police found suspicious for no reason other than race. Yet only a fraction of searches produced contraband that led to an arrest. The stops were not only discriminatory, they had little crime-fighting value and alienated the Black community.
Focus on reckless driving
In 2010, Fayetteville’s Black community began protesting these racial disparities. Their protests finally led to the hiring of a new police chief, Harold Medlock, who says he told officers “to stop making traffic stops that don’t mean anything” and focus on “speeding, reckless driving and running stop lights.”
While stops for nonmoving violations did not disappear, they became a smaller proportion of all traffic stops. During the same period, searches of Black motorists and passengers after traffic stops dropped from more than 3,100 in 2011 – three times the number of white motorists and passengers searched – to 750 in 2016. While disparities remained, fewer innocent people were being searched and humiliated.
Instead, police focused on unsafe driving. Stops for speeding soared from about 13,000 in 2012 to more than 46,000 in 2016. Streets were safer. While crime continued to decline, Black residents made more 911 calls to police, suggesting that trust was increasing. And no one felt unsafe because some drivers got away with having a broken taillight.
Model of community policing
The changes built stronger relations between police and the Black community, drew praise for the department as a model of community policing from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and led the local NAACP to recognize Medlock and his department with an award.
Fayetteville’s reforms coincided with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing use of police body cameras, which awakened more Americans to the treatment Black Americans frequently suffered during police encounters.
Focusing traffic stops on safety isn’t a magic formula to resolve all racial bias, but it can be a good start and could save lives.
Katie Wright, mother of the latest victim, laid her son Daunte to rest in April. “The roles should completely be reversed,” she said through sobs. “My son should be burying me.”
If a simple change can help prevent such tragedies, cities and states should embrace it now before any more sons die pointless deaths.
In the wake of a police officer’s conviction for murder in the killing of George Floyd, USA TODAY Opinion is producing a series of editorials examining ways to reform police departments across the USA.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police traffic stops for minor infraction can turn into fatal tragedy