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Police traffic stops and racism

As social justice advocates target police violence against people of color, traffic stops are under growing scrutiny

As social justice advocates target police violence against people of color, traffic stops are under growing scrutiny. Here's everything you need to know:

Why are traffic stops important? Scores of studies have shown the same pervasive pattern: Black people are more likely to be pulled over for traffic violations, and more likely to be searched when they're stopped. The most comprehensive study of the issue comes from Stanford University's Open Policing Project, which in 2020 found "persistent racial bias" in nearly 100 million police stops made by 21 state agencies and 35 municipal departments. Tellingly, the racial disparity dropped after sunset — when it's harder for an officer to see a driver's face. Black drivers were searched about twice as often as white drivers — even though they were less frequently found to be carrying contraband. "'Driving while Black' is very much a thing," says Kelsey Shoub, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and co-author of Suspect Citizens, a book analyzing 20 million traffic stops. "It appears to be more systemic than a few 'bad apple' officers engaged in racial profiling."

How strong is the evidence for that charge? Multiple studies have come to the same conclusion. An ABC News analysis of data from city police departments last year, for example, found stark disparities in traffic stops. Blacks were stopped five times more in Minneapolis, four times more in Chicago and San Francisco, and three times more in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. A 2020 study of 1.8 million stops in California found Blacks were three times more likely to be searched — a figure that matches a 2013 Justice Department study. Shoub and two colleagues found that "just by getting in a car, a Black driver has about twice the odds of being pulled over and about four times the odds of being searched."

What is the impact of the stops? Traffic stops are the most common interaction between citizens and police, with some 50,000 drivers pulled over daily — about 20 million stops a year. Police have a huge amount of discretion in deciding whom to pull over, and people of color are often singled out for scrutiny and harassment. Critics say stops over matters like broken taillights are generally a pretext to interrogate or search someone or their vehicle. Many Black Americans say repeated traffic stops breed humiliation, trauma, and distrust of police. There's "a tension that has been growing for decades," said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a conservative African-American who has spoken of the "anguish" he's experienced during a host of groundless traffic stops dating to his teens. More troubling still is that many of the most notorious recent police killings of Black men began with traffic stops.

Why is that? Police are trained to believe that every citizen they pull over may be an armed criminal, so some cops approach stops with adrenalized fear and hair-trigger aggression. Consider the case of Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who was approached by two cops pointing guns and pepper sprayed in the face after a December traffic stop. Minnesotan Philando Castile was fatally shot with five bullets in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter after being pulled over for a broken taillight; an NPR analysis showed the dreadlocked 32-year-old had been stopped 46 times over 14 years. Walter Scott, a South Carolina forklift operator, was fatally shot in the back in 2015 after being stopped for a faulty brake light. Sandra Bland, 28, died in jail in Texas after being pulled over for failing to use a turn signal. In 2015, more than 100 people were fatally shot after traffic stops, The Washington Post found, a third of them Black. (Black people make up about 13 percent of the population.)

What's being done about this? Some cities and states are putting restrictions on when police can pull people over. A new law in Virginia prevents police from pulling over drivers solely because of minor violations. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that police can't interrogate drivers about matters unrelated to the reason they were stopped, and San Francisco's district attorney announced last year that the city would no longer prosecute cases arising from pretextual stops. Such moves are staunchly opposed by police unions, who say traffic stops help cops find and catch serious criminals. "It's a very valuable tool," said Kevin Lawrence of the Texas Municipal Police Association. But some critics of the stop want to take traffic enforcement away from police entirely.

How would that work? Municipalities would create a separate agency responsible for traffic issues, staffed by unarmed agents without the power to arrest or conduct searches. Cameras would be used to target violations like expired registrations as well as speeding and red-light running. Last year Berkeley, Calif., became the first city to approve such a plan. Such an approach would do much to alleviate the racial injustice around traffic enforcement, said Jordan Blair Woods, a University of Arkansas law professor who's studied the issue. "Removing police from traffic enforcement," Woods said, "could also eliminate key reasons traffic stops escalate into violence."

How the courts back the police The courts have generally given police wide latitude to stop and arrest motorists. In the 1996 case Whren v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled police can use a minor infraction as justification for stopping a driver in pursuit of an unrelated crime. It "put the rubber stamp on pretextual traffic stops," said University of Arkansas law professor Jordan Blair Woods. The high court went a step further in 2014, ruling in Heien v. North Carolina that evidence found in a traffic stop is admissible even if the matter the driver was stopped for wasn't actually a violation of law; as long as the officer believed it was, the court ruled, the stop and subsequent search was legal. Even without that leeway, reform advocates note, traffic laws contain so many regulations that police who want to stop a car can always find a reason. "If you're driving," said Farhang Heydari of the NYU School of Law's Policing Project, "it's impossible not to break a traffic law."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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