Jurisprudence

The Myth of the Dangerous Traffic Stop Is Killing Black Men in America

Katie Wright cries as she stands at a mic surrounded by supporters. Several, including Katie, are holding posters that say "Justice for Daunte Wright."
Katie Wright (center), Daunte Wright’s mother, speaks during a press conference in Minneapolis on Friday. Kerem Yucel/Getty Images

On Sunday, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man, after pulling him over for hanging an air freshener from his rearview mirror. Wright’s death is just the latest instance of police assaulting and killing drivers—specifically, Black men who pose no danger—following a routine traffic stop. Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Sam DuBose were all shot and killed by police after a traffic stop; none of them posed any danger to the officers who took their lives.

Advertisement

Racism surely plays a role here, but there is another reason so many appalling police shootings involve motorists: Law enforcement officers are taught that routine traffic stops pose extreme danger to their own lives. Courts have seized upon this idea to water down the constitutional rights of drivers, justifying police brutality on the grounds that officers must act quickly to protect themselves against the random violence that always lurks just around the corner.

Advertisement
Advertisement

This theory has pervaded American law and law enforcement for decades. It is also untrue. In a 2019 article published in the Michigan Law Review, Jordan Blair Woods demonstrated that violence during traffic stops is, in fact, extremely rare. Woods, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, also found that it is officers, not drivers, who frequently escalate those few stops that lead to actual violence. In a forthcoming article in the Stanford Law Review, Woods proposes removing police from traffic enforcement altogether to prevent more violence against motorists, especially Black civilians, during traffic stops. On Thursday, we spoke about his articles, which are tragically topical in light of Wright’s killing. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Advertisement

Mark Joseph Stern: What’s the “danger narrative” about traffic stops, and where did it originate?

Jordan Blair Woods: Traffic stops are the most common way that people come into contact with police. The Supreme Court has traditionally deferred to the authority of police to order people out of vehicles, the authority of police to take action without questioning their judgment. And a lot of that is grounded in this narrative, this myth, that routine traffic stops are especially dangerous settings for the police. That narrative dates back to a study that Allen Bristow published in 1963 which put out the figure that one in every three police killings involves a traffic stop. The Supreme Court credited that study in a 1977 case called Pennsylvania v. Mimms. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, and was one of the voices that called attention to some of the problems with the data that the Supreme Court was relying on. His basic point was that the data was being used in a way that didn’t support the conclusions that the court was coming to. And I think he was right. Bristow’s research has been distorted to perpetuate these danger narratives.

Advertisement
Advertisement

What happened after the Supreme Court blessed this “danger narrative”?

Over the next few decades, there were a lot of cases where the Supreme Court cited cases like Mimms to put forth the general idea that routine traffic stops are especially dangerous settings for police officers. Over time, the myth became a key justification for why the court will defer to officers’ decisions on the grounds of officer safety. Courts don’t want to second-guess these decisions, and instead say that officer safety is a justification that leans in favor of allowing police to do what they’re doing. And it becomes very difficult for stopped drivers and passengers to bring a Fourth Amendment claim when courts are deferring to what the officers are doing on officer safety grounds.

Advertisement

And as you write in your article, the narrative seeped into the culture of law enforcement, too.

This narrative has infiltrated law enforcement departments and culture. One of the ways we see this happening is with regard to officer training. Now it is very common that when officers are going through training, they see video clips of random traffic stops that look fairly routine, and drivers randomly shooting an officer or using random violence. And what agencies are trying to get across to officers is that if you’re hesitant to use force and you’re not aware at every second during a routine traffic stop, this is what the traffic stop will evolve into.

Advertisement

This training frames how you come to think about doing traffic stops yourself. You’re told that no traffic stop is routine and you never know who you’re stopping. That affects how you approach interacting with stopped drivers and passengers. It might mean you’re too quick to take aggressive actions that escalate the situation. What I’ve tried to do in my research is point out the ways in which framing routine traffic stops as especially dangerous actually fuels escalation.

Advertisement

How did you conduct your study, and what did you find?

I looked at traffic stops between 2005 and 2014 in Florida, because Florida has such comprehensive public records law. I looked at the incidents that resulted in violence and contacted law enforcement agencies to figure out what generally went down during each of these incidents. What I ended up finding was that the danger narrative about traffic stops that is commonly perpetuated in courts and law enforcement circles isn’t supported by empirical research. What I found is that overall, violence against officers during traffic stops was fairly infrequent and the incidents that did happen were generally low-risk and didn’t involve weapons.

Using my most conservative estimates, I found that the rate for felonious killing of an officer during routine traffic stops was 1 in every 6.5 million stops. The rate for an assault resulting in serious injury to an officer was 1 in every 361,111 stops. The rate for assault against an officer, whether it results in injury or not, was 1 in every 6,959 stops. The least conservative estimates suggest that the rates are much less: 1 in every 27.6 million stops for a killing, 1 in every 1.53 million stops involving an assault that results in serious injury to an officer, and 1 in every 29,550 stops for an assault against an officer, whether it resulted in officer injury or not.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The bottom line is the idea that routine traffic stops are these exceptionally dangerous events for police didn’t pan out with my results.

What did you find about the stops that did escalate?

There were many stops that came up in my research where the officers did much more than just stop the vehicle, ask for a driver’s license and registration, check the documents, write the ticket or issue a warning, and go on their way. Instead, they escalated the situation. 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. The ways in which officers decide to exercise their authority can escalate a stop, especially in overpoliced communities that might be really fearful of the police.

Advertisement

In your most recent article, you propose a solution to the problems we’ve been discussing. What is it?

We tend to think of situations when police are mistreating and even killing stopped civilians as problems with officer training or maybe having a bad apple in the bunch. But the root problem is more of a structural issue of police being involved in traffic enforcement in the first place. The goal of the piece is to outline the ways in which police involvement in traffic enforcement has resulted in decades of overpolicing and overcriminalization and harm to communities of color. I try to provide a path forward: Here’s what a traffic system in which traffic regulation is happening without the police would look like. I want to push against intuition that it’s impossible for traffic regulation to happen without police.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And what does that look like in practice?

I think the best approach is to have unarmed civil agents be the ones handling traffic enforcement, rather than armed police officers. Right now, traffic stops are not really just about traffic. We know that for decades officers and law enforcement agencies have used traffic stops as a tool of criminal investigations. 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.

Can you say more about how traffic stops aren’t just about traffic?

There’s a deep history of officers using low-level crimes to search for evidence of a more serious crime that they have no probable cause or reasonable suspicion for. The traffic stop has really turned into a key tool of criminal enforcement. And Supreme Court decisions like Whren v. United States in 1996 put the rubber stamp on pretextual traffic stops. In Whren, the Supreme Court held if officers see a traffic violation, they’re able to pull over that car even if their motivation for pulling over that car was entirely different. So you have officers able to conduct pretextual traffic stops, and most people they’re pulling over are Black and brown.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Does using low-level crime, like traffic violations, as a pretext for invasive searches actually reduce crime?

The empirical evidence doesn’t point in that direction. Several studies show that so many drivers, in particular Black and brown drivers, are stopped and searched and nothing is ever found. But the harms are real. The psychological and physical harms can be serious, not only for that stopped driver but their communities. The Supreme Court has played into this myth that traffic stops are just momentary inconveniences and not a big deal for the people who are stopped. As the tragic cases of unarmed Black men being killed during traffic stops show, that’s just not true.

Advertisement