Opinion | Unarmed Drivers Killed by Police in Traffic Stops

By | August 19, 2023
Opinion | Unarmed Drivers Killed by Police in Traffic Stops

To the Editor:

Re “How Broken Taillights End in Killings by Police” (front page, Oct. 31):

I am a 68-year-old white man. In July 2020, I was pulled over by a New Hampshire state trooper for speeding on I-95. Expecting a speeding ticket, I was shocked when the trooper immediately drew his gun, pointed it at my head and said, “Put your hands up where I can see them and don’t move.”

Having read about the police stopping Black people and what you need to do — or not do — to avoid getting shot for no good reason, I moved only when given explicit permission to do so. He approached, gun drawn, then handcuffed and pushed me into the back seat of his cruiser. This officer epitomized the concept of “officer-created jeopardy.” He struck me as scared.

“Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and the combination is volatile,” you quote the criminologist Kalfani Ture saying. Fortunately for me, I triggered only one of those danger signals. That is white privilege.

Leonard J. Shine
North Canton, Conn.

To the Editor:

If police officers cannot deal with traffic stops, domestic violence disputes or other routine situations without feeling so threatened that they routinely kill unarmed individuals, then we have all the evidence we need to rethink policing in America.

A system of public safety that dispatches trained professionals who understand de-escalation and carry out routine tasks like ticketing without violence seems like the obvious answer. Traditional police can then continue to serve in those situations that require the hypervigilance that they are displaying and that may actually warrant use of force.

Gabe Downey
Southfield, Mich.

To the Editor:

Remind me to check my taillights. I would hate to get stopped and shot because of a burned-out bulb.

The shocking numbers of unarmed, nonthreatening drivers who are killed by the police have one basic cause: The police are scared to death. And they have good reason to be frightened. There are more guns than people in the United States.

One way to lower the temperature of traffic stops would be to pass some common-sense laws to limit the infestation of our society by guns. Then maybe the police won’t be so fearful and will be less likely to shoot now and ask questions later.

Bob Kochersberger
Raleigh, N.C.

To the Editor:

I have a great deal of sympathy for the police officers who put themselves at risk when approaching a car pulled to the side of a road, particularly at night. It seems that many of the tragedies that began as routine traffic stops but quickly escalated out of control could have been avoided had both the driver and the officer(s) known that flight was not an option.

A temporary boot — a simple pair of wedges slid onto the pavement to straddle one of the rear wheels before any conversation with the driver — would let all parties know that flight had been rendered impossible, and that a nonviolent resolution would be in the best interest of everyone.

Patrick Canan
Alexandria, Va.

To the Editor:

Four years ago I attended a community meeting about unfair policing. After listening to the speaker, I mentioned the 10 times, during my 50 years of driving, that I, a white male, had been pulled over without receiving a citation. No Black person at that meeting was that lucky.

Driving While Not White is not an imaginary fear, but a source of stress to millions and a source of revenue to hundreds of municipalities.

Paul L. Newman
Merion Station, Pa.

To the Editor:

Your article refers to officer-created jeopardy, when the police unnecessarily take risks in dealing with a driver and then argue that the risk required use of force. Officer-created jeopardy does not occur only in traffic situations.

A well-known example: Tamir Rice was killed in 2014 after officers, who had been notified that he held a gun, drove up very near to him, exited their vehicle and then shot the 12-year-old boy at close range on the basis that he posed immediate danger to them. Officers in that situation should have parked and exited their vehicle at some distance and used the vehicle as cover while they told him to drop his gun.

Officers need not place themselves in such danger in these situations, even where the gun is real, which was not the case for Tamir Rice.

Terrie Gale
The writer teaches criminal law in the sociology department of George Washington University.

To the Editor:

Re “Across America, Many Towns’ Thirst for Money Sends Patrol Cars Hunting for Any Possible Violations” (front page, Oct. 31):

One way to change the financial incentives behind the policing of motorists would be to adopt the Scandinavian system of “day fines” for traffic violations, so that the amount of the fine is based on the income of the person violating the law.

A bill to start a pilot program in New York City was introduced in the City Council in 2019. It wouldn’t stop the use of fines for revenue collection, but it would make it more profitable to target the wealthy, who might then start to question the practice.

Eric Stenshoel
New York

To the Editor:

The link between tax policy and the widening wealth gap is well documented, but your recent story on the fiscal incentive behind traffic stops highlights how tax limits and states’ failure to raise adequate revenue compound structural inequities.

Many states restrict localities’ ability to adopt progressive local income taxes, expand their sales tax bases or even raise property taxes to adequate levels. Further, across most states, the amount of state revenue shared with municipalities has dwindled in the last two decades. Shortchanging local communities has become a go-to method for state officials seeking to offset the high cost of low taxes.

Without local taxing authority and adequate state aid, localities rely on practices that trap Black, brown and low-income communities with the least political power in a cycle of debt and criminalization. It doesn’t have to be this way. Ending this injustice will require changing the perverse financial incentives that underpin policing and reimagining equitable means of raising revenue.

Kamolika Das
The writer is a policy analyst for the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

To the Editor:

The “thirst for money” behind police traffic stops that you describe goes far beyond traffic tickets in New York. It is a core feature of pay-as-you-go justice.

Predatory fines and fees practices have turned our courts into revenue raisers, turned our police into armed debt collectors and put families like mine into debt.

My son suffers from mental health issues and has been routinely criminalized and arrested by the police. Because of these interactions, we now owe thousands of dollars in court fees, youth offender fees, traffic violation fees and New York’s mandatory surcharge, a fee attached to every conviction.

It’s been five years and I am still paying that debt. I work overtime. I take on extra jobs. It’s never enough. Even the stimulus checks that were supposed to help get us through the pandemic went straight to the courts.

But New York can address this injustice by passing the End Predatory Court Fees Act. This bill would stop these cycles of debt and punishment by eliminating court fees and mandatory minimum fines, and ending arrests and incarceration of people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees. Now is the time.

Peggy Herrera
The writer is a community leader at Center for Community Alternatives.