By Akhi Johnson, Acting Director, Reshaping Prosecution, Vera Institute of Justice
Sandra Bland was arrested because a police officer said she had not given a turn signal. Philando Castile was arrested for a faulty brake light. Daunte Wright was driving a car with an expired registration certificate.
When the police stop people for things like broken taillights or the darkening of windows, it creates unnecessary opportunities for deadly encounters. The list of people who have died after police detained them for trivial reasons is far too long – and continues to grow.
Police action should make people safer. Doesn’t stop for minor offenses as an excuse to look for evidence of larger crimes. That’s why more and more law enforcement and prosecutors are taking steps to eliminate non-public safety stops, sometimes called pretextual stops. They wisely direct the police’s attention to violations of the law that pose danger.
As with many traumas inflicted by the criminal justice system, this pain weighs most heavily on communities of color. Police have great discretion in taking non-public safety stops, leaving room for implicit and explicit racial bias to influence their decisions. Numerous studies show that people of color are arrested, interrogated and searched by the police at higher rates than whites. A large study of 100 million traffic stops across the country found that black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a “veil of darkness” masks the race, indicating bias in stopping decisions. This same study examined the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and the likelihood of searches yielding contraband, and found evidence that the bar for searching for black and Hispanic drivers was lower than for searching for white drivers.
When researchers studied statistics on “must stop” situations that posed an obvious danger, and non-public safety stops that didn’t, they found that pretty much all racial differences in stops can be attributed to non-public safety stops.
The vast majority of non-public safety shutdowns do not result in the discovery of drugs or weapons. Of the 297,000 searches conducted in New York in 2012For example, only 2 percent led to the discovery of a weapon. Meanwhile, victims of such stops may suffer physical and psychological damage. Non-public safety stops also expose police officers to unnecessary danger. The most common proactive police activity prior to a fatality is a cop-initiated traffic stop.
With such clear evidence that non-public safety stops pose meaningless risks without improving public safety, some law enforcement agencies are recommending agents stop stopping motorists for violations that pose no apparent danger and focus on safety risks.
- In Fayetteville, North Carolina, the police chief directed police to: emphasize non-moving violations while aggressively monitoring speeding, driving with a disability, and other offenses that present immediate danger. As a result, the city saw the percentage of searches for vehicles driven by black drivers increase fivefold, and the number of road deaths fell in the years after the police implemented the policy.
- In Lansing, Michigan, police have been instructed not to stop motorists for secondary traffic violations such as loud exhaust or dangling ornaments from rear-view mirrors.
- Also in Michigan, Washtenaw County Prosecutor issued a policy guideline that possession of contraband charges would not be filed in cases where the police obtained evidence through a traffic violation arrest and no other probable cause or legal reason justified the search.
- The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office issued a policy guideline that prosecutors should refuse to file possession of contraband charges in cases where an officer searches motorists after they have been detained for a minor traffic violation.
More police chiefs and prosecutors should follow suit and focus their resources on crimes involving an identifiable victim or posing a danger to members of the community. Non-public safety shutdowns create unnecessary leads with a criminal justice system that causes far too much unnecessary trauma and harm, especially for black people. These stops allow for bias, are dangerous and do not make us any safer. Eliminating them across the country is an important step toward building a criminal justice system that provides justice for all.