- A “pretext” traffic stop is when police pull you over for a minor traffic violation and then use that to search for a more serious offense.
- These stops don’t reduce crime, and too often lead to the deaths of Black motorists.
- Until there’s extensive reformation, police shouldn’t be allowed in situations where they are prone to kill.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On April 11, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was driving down a street in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. As many of us made sure to do at his age, he had an air-freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror. But in Minnesota, it’s illegal to have items dangling from your rear-view mirror, and so, according to Daunte’s mother, this prompted Brooklyn Center police to pull him over. Daunte was killed moments later.
After a night of heated protests, Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon held a press conference and said that the officer who killed Daunte, 26-year veteran Kim Potter, accidentally used her gun instead of her Taser. In body cam footage of the shooting, the she can be heard yelling “Taser! Taser!” before shooting Daunte with her firearm.
Potter has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, so Daunte’s family may see justice. But the incident still speaks to many glaring issues with law enforcement. How could an experienced veteran mistake her gun for a Taser? Why does an officer need a gun for a traffic stop anyway?
The most prominent of these issues deals with why Daunte was pulled over in the first place. Whether it was for the air-freshener or for, as police say, expired tags, it has little to do with traffic violations themselves. It has everything to do with what police can find afterwards.
In 2014, I was pulled over in Columbus, Ohio, driving my older brother’s Nissan Maxima. The large sedan had a custom body kit, an over-powering subwoofer in the trunk, and, fatefully, tinted windows. In Ohio, it’s illegal to tint your windows darker than 50%, and while I didn’t know what the percentage of the tint was – the car’s previous owner was the one who tinted it – the white officer who pulled me over thought they were dark enough to investigate.
He told me that dark windows are illegal. I had no idea. He told me to unlock the back doors, and even though I wondered if he was allowed to do that, I complied. He and another officer used blinding flashlights to search around the back seat for anything nefarious. Slightly disoriented from the combination of blue lights from the police cruiser and the frantic illumination coming from the officers’ flashlights, I waited in the driver’s seat, bouncing my knee in a fit of anxiety – not because I had anything illegal in the car, but because this was the start of a painfully familiar story.
Minor traffic violations too often lead to the deaths of Black drivers. In 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed after he was stopped for having a broken taillight. Sandra Bland, too, was found dead in jail just three days after being pulled over for failing to use her turning signal. This goes for Samuel Debose and Walter Scott, as well.
The officer that pulled me over didn’t find anything in the car. I hadn’t even realized he was back at my window because the beam from his partner’s flashlight was still bouncing about. They let me go with a warning, and aside from telling me it was a violation, didn’t really pressure me to get new windows with less tint. That’s because the possibility of finding something more criminal than the tinted windows was the reason they stopped me in the first place.
In law enforcement, a “pretextual” or “pretext” traffic stop is one where police pull someone over for a minor violation – like running a stop sign or failing to use your turn signal – and use the traffic stop to fish for a more serious crime. Historically, police have argued that pretext stops help them nab bad guys, but, like with everything else police do, these pretext stops affect Black people a lot more than white people.
A study by researchers at New York University showed that white drivers are 20% less likely to be pulled over than Black drivers. The study also found that while Black drivers were less likely to be carrying illegal substances than white drivers, they were stopped up to twice as many times. Indeed, in the years leading up to Philando Castile’s death, he was stopped by police 49 times for minor traffic violations.
The racial disparity of pretext traffic stops wouldn’t be nearly as problematic if the stops didn’t often lead to the shooting deaths of Black drivers. In 2015, the Washington Post found that 33% of people killed by police after a traffic stop were Black, despite Black people only making up 12.6% of the population that year.
License and hesitation
Traffic stops, in general, don’t really do much for driver safety. It’s hard to believe that getting yelled at for my tinted windows helped make the roads safer. Indeed, Jalopnik’s Raphael Orlove noted a finding in Stanford’s “Open Policing Project”: Traffic stops “can place heavy burdens on Black and Hispanic drivers without improving public safety.”
And pretext stops in particular don’t even reduce crime. An analysis by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab found that traffic stops in Nashville “had no discernible effect on serious crime rates, and only infrequently resulted in the recovery of contraband of a custodial arrest.”
If the best thing a traffic stop can do is pressure someone to fix their taillight, and the worst thing it can do is kill a human being, then why the hell are we even talking about this? Ban all traffic stops.
I’m confident in the police system’s ability to find new, creative ways to perpetuate racism, but there are alternatives to a traffic stop that won’t lead to the deaths of Black motorists. For instance, red-light cameras already enforce traffic laws without having to stop the driver, so why can’t police departments refocus their efforts? Why can’t police mail you tickets with instructions to pay online, like toll road administrators do when you don’t have cash?
In a world inching towards online dependency, I refuse to believe that police need to physically pull you over to give you a ticket. If the goal is truly to make roads safer, then the police don’t need to be physically involved.
Daunte called his mom during his traffic stop and told her that police pulled him over because of his air-freshener. After the call, and according to the body cam footage, he was told he was being arrested on an outstanding warrant. The pretext traffic stop worked like a charm, but Daunte ended up dead. This is incredibly avoidable.
Reasonable people may ask why officers can’t be trained to stop making these mistakes. The problem with that question is that officers who kill are not making mistakes. These killings keep happening because police act exactly the way they’re trained to.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer, wrote about the tactics police departments use to train their officers:
“One common scenario teaches officers that a suspect leaning into a car can pull out a gun and shoot at officers before they can react. Another teaches that even when an officer is pointing a gun at a suspect whose back is turned, the suspect can spin around and fire first. Yet another teaches that a knife-carrying suspect standing 6.10m away can run up to an officer and start stabbing before the officer can get their gun out of the holster.”
And when it comes to whether an officer should consider whether they could be making a mistake and shooting unnecessarily, Stoughton wrote that they are taught to believe the risk of a mistake is far less than the risk of hesitation. Basically, they are taught that it’s “kill or be killed,” even if that isn’t the reality.
It would take a mountain-moving effort to change the way police officers are trained. For one, police academies began militarizing their training tactics in the 1960s and ’70s, as the “war on drugs” escalated under President Reagan. These issues are deeply ingrained. Secondly, the culture of policing may be just as important as the training itself.
“You can have the best training in the world but at the end of the day it comes down to morals, it comes down to the culture of an organization, it comes down to what’s tolerated,” Erik Misselt, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, told the Hechinger Report.
Until a reformation in training and police culture happens, police shouldn’t be allowed in situations where they are prone to kill. There is nothing a police officer could find in someone’s car that is worth the life of the person driving it, so it’s time to remove these encounters entirely.
After all, a broken police system is far more dangerous than a broken taillight.