Police should stop making minor traffic stops that too often turn into major tragedies

Editor's note: This editorial was originally published July 13, 2021, as part of an ongoing USA TODAY Editorial Board campaign for police reform. It has been updated to focus on the tragic death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee.

Ordinarily, no one should expect a traffic stop for a minor infraction to become a death sentence. But if you are Black, you know the nightmare history of such stops. And there’s always another tragic reminder.

The most recent involves the horrific death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who was pulled over Jan. 7 by Memphis police, supposedly on suspicion of reckless driving. Nichols died three days after being severely beaten. Five Memphis police officers involved in the traffic stop were fired and later charged with second-degree murder, assault and kidnapping. A sixth officer was suspended Monday in connection with Nichols' death.

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The city of Memphis released videos Friday that show police officers dragging Nichols from his car after the traffic stop. The videos also show officers repeatedly kicking, punching and hitting Nichols with a baton as he lay on the ground.

"It was not a normal traffic stop," Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, told NPR. "They were not in marked vehicles, they were not wearing normal police uniforms, and they pulled him out of the car, got him down on the ground and pepper-sprayed him."

Protesters rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2023, after Memphis, Tenn., released police body camera footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.
Protesters rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27, 2023, after Memphis, Tenn., released police body camera footage of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols.

Nichols' death is only one in a long series of needless killings of Black men stopped for largely minor traffic violations. Other victims 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.

Policing: This is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.

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.

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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.

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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.

If a simple change can help prevent such tragedies, cities and states should embrace it now before any more Black men and women die pointless deaths.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tyre Nichols death tragic reminder: Cops must end minor traffic stops