Daunte Wright. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Sam DuBose. All too often another name is added to the list of Black men killed by cops at traffic stops. While police training continues to push the narrative that it is law enforcement officers who face extreme danger during these encounters, the sheer numbers of civilian victims says differently.
In an interview with Slate.com, Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at University of Arkansas, discussed the roots of the myth that cops are particularly endangered every time they pull over a driver. It dates, he said, to a 1963 study by Allen Bristow that suggested traffic stops accounted for a third of all cops that were killed. The finding was cited by the Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977), which granted police greater protections for their actions in such situations. Dissenting Justice in that case, John Paul Stevens, pointed out that Bristow’s information had been misapplied and was thus unreliable.
“[Stevens’] basic point was that the data was being used in a way that didn’t support the conclusions that the court was coming to,” Woods said. “And I think he was right. Bristow’s research has been distorted to perpetuate these danger narratives.”
Woods conducted his own research by examining a decade of Florida traffic stops from 2005 to 2014. He discovered that a felonious killing of a cop occurred only once per every 6.5 million stops by the most conservative estimate. A more liberal take on the data suggests it happened just once in every 27.6 million stops. By the same parameters, police were seriously injured at a rate between every 361,111 and 1.53 million stops. In cases where cops were assaulted with or without being injured, estimates range from roughly once per every 7,000 to 30,000 stops.
“The bottom line is the idea that routine traffic stops are these exceptionally dangerous events for police didn’t pan out with my results,” said Woods.
Even though violent acts by drivers toward cops who pull them over is fairly rare, the militarization of law enforcement in recent decades has trained police to treat the public like enemy combatants in virtually every situation. The idea that “no traffic stop is routine” has in many cases become a pretext for cops to unnecessarily escalate situations.
“Officers put their hands inside of the car window. They touched a driver. They told them to get out of the car. They used an aggressive tone,” Woods stated. “The ways which officers decide to exercise their authority can escalate a stop, especially in overpoliced communities that might be really fearful of the police.”
Prior attempts to address the dangers that civilians—and particularly people of color—encounter during traffic stops have focused on so-called “bad apples” or issues with police training. Woods suggests a better way forward would be to remove cops from the equation entirely and instead leave enforcement of traffic laws to unarmed civil agents.
“We know that for decades officers and law enforcement agencies have used traffic stops as a tool of criminal investigations,” he said. “The optimal solution is to actually make traffic stops about the traffic violation. If we go back to a situation where the traffic stop is just about traffic, a lot of those sensationalized fears around the dangers of the traffic stop would go away.”
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