by Jo Ellen Nott
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. police killed far more people between 2013 and 2019 than any other wealthy democracy on the planet. Data drawn from the Mapping Police Violence organization show U.S. police officers killed more than 7,500 people during the period while in Canada only 224 people died, and other countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Finland, and Norway reported zero police killings.
To add depth to this violent panorama, 400 unarmed citizens were killed during routine traffic stops in the last five years in the U.S. How does a traffic stop result in a homicide? The presence of a weapon in an interaction that should be conversation-based is the first answer. Experts point to the unnecessary nature of tasking an armed first responder to handle traffic infractions. If writing a ticket for a busted taillight does not require a firearm to do so, having an unarmed community officer handle traffic infractions would be a more reasonable option as is done in other parts of the world.
Another reason is monetary. Many localities in the U.S. depend on revenue from traffic tickets and fines to finance their police departments’ operations and training. As reported by the New York Times, “a hidden scaffolding of financial incentives underpins the policing of motorists in the United States and encourages communities to repurpose armed officers as revenue agents searching for infractions largely unrelated to public safety.” Government highway-safety grants to the tune of over $600 million a year that subsidize ticket writing do not help. The Times points out the extraordinarily common activity of driving is the reason people have been shot, tasered, or arrested for minor offenses as traffic stops spiral out of control.
Why do traffic stops spiral out of control? If the first motive is to enhance revenue for the department or, secondly, to search a car they consider suspicious by conducting a pretextual stop, it does not follow that the motorist ends up dead. Several aspects of law enforcement culture create the perfect storm to cause traffic stop death. The Times outlined these aspects in its report Pulled Over: What to Know About Deadly Traffic Stops. First is the unforgettable message officers receive in their training that vehicle stops are dangerous. The training “stokes fear by overstating the risks from misleading statistics and gory dashcam video of drivers gunned down during traffic stops.” The second factor is over-reaction. Christopher Slobogin of the Vanderbilt Law School criminal justice program reminds us that “police are trained to watch for sudden movements, and to shoot or take other protective steps whenever they see or think they see a gun in someone’s hands.” The third factor is officer-created jeopardy. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette described officer-created jeopardy as those moments in which officers “regularly—and unnecessarily—places themselves in danger by standing in front of vehicle or reaching inside car windows and then fire their weapons in what they later claim as self-defense.
Of the 400 killings of an unarmed citizen by a police officer during a vehicle stop, the Times was able to find officers charged in 32 cases. Five convictions resulted from those charges. The low conviction rate is a result of the officers’ defense that they feared for their lives, which serves as the police’s standard “get-out-of-jail-free card” in virtually any situation. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette found that “this defense of mortal peril is used over and over again with success as seen in court precedents.”
The Times report, however, uncovered evidence that frequently contradicted the accounts of law-enforcement officers. “In dashboard and body camera footage, officers could be seen shooting at cars driving away, threatening deadly force in their first words to drivers, or surrounding sleeping drivers with a ring of gun barrels—then shooting them when startled and trying to take off.”
Sources: council on foreign relations.org, mapping police violence.org, the crime report.org, nytimes.com, arkansasonline.com
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