Police in the US have killed nearly 600 people during traffic stops since 2017, with the deaths continuing apace this year, a review of national police violence data shows.
The numbers add urgency to the growing push from advocates to prevent deadly stops and remove officers from traffic enforcement following the police killing of Patrick Lyoya, a Black Michigan man, earlier this month.
Encounters with police during traffic stops, including minor infractions, disproportionately harm people of color, according to data collected by Mapping Police Violence, a non-profit research group, which argues that armed police should not be involved in many of these cases.
About 10% of the roughly 1,100 people killed by police each year involve traffic violations, the group found.
“We often see the most extreme examples on the news, but this is something that happens so frequently,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and policy analyst who founded Mapping Police Violence.
There were 97 deadly traffic stops in 2017; 114 in 2018; 117 in 2019; 119 in 2020; 117 in 2021; and 25 so far in 2022 as of April, according to the data.
There has been renewed scrutiny of traffic stops since the 4 April killing of Lyoya, an unarmed 26-year-old in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was shot in the back of the head after a struggle with an officer who pulled him over for having a mismatched license plate. Lyoya’s death is the most recent that has captured headlines and calls for change.
Daunte Wright, 20, was killed after being pulled over for an expired registration tag and a hanging air freshener; Sandra Bland, 28, was stopped for failing to signal; and 32-year-old Philando Castile died following a traffic stop after an officer claimed he looked like a suspect in a recent robbery, citing his “wide-set nose”.
Mapping Police Violence tracks deaths reported by government and media, and categorizes a killing as a traffic case if the encounter began with a routine stop for a traffic violation. It does not classify deaths as traffic violations if the individual was pulled over for other reasons. Black drivers make up 28% of those killed in traffic stops, while accounting for only 13% of the population. Research has consistently found that Black and brown drivers are more likely to be stopped, searched and subjected to force.
“There are millions of encounters between the police and the public because of traffic enforcement, and many result in negative experiences – people being searched, arrested, and having force used against them, Sinyangwe said.
He noted that the majority of killings by police involved either traffic stops, mental health episodes, welfare checks, nonviolent and low-level offenses or no alleged crime – all circumstances in which there should have been an alternative response to armed officers.
Some of the deadly traffic cases tracked this year include a Miami man stopped for an expired tag, a Milwaukee man accused of failing to signal and an Oregon man who allegedly failed to stop while entering a roadway from a parking lot.
In some cases, people are killed as they attempt to flee or after the stop uncovers a weapon. Police press releases often fail to disclose the reason for the stop, instead focusing on the individual’s actions once they were pulled over. The New York Times recently documented more than 400 cases over five years in which US police pulled over and killed motorists who were unarmed and not under pursuit for a violent crime.
‘We’re reducing these bad encounters’
Since George Floyd’s murder, local governments across the US have pursued reforms meant to restrict traffic stops and limit unnecessary encounters between police and motorists.
“I see no reason why somebody who has bad tags needs an armed response,” said Amity Dimock, whose son Kobe Dimock-Heisler, 21, was killed by police during a mental health crisis in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, the same city where Wright was fatally shot. “Police are trained for combat, for adverse situations, and I think that’s where we should leave them.”
Brooklyn Center passed a resolution last year, named after Dimock-Heisler and Wright, to create an unarmed civilian division responsible for certain traffic violations and to send trained clinicians to mental health emergencies.
“This is about putting the most effective responders into these situations,” Dimock said. But the process of implementing these changes has been slow and is still in an early phase, she added.
Officials in Lansing, Michigan, adopted new guidelines in July 2020 meant to restrict traffic stops for matters unrelated to public safety, such as a cracked windshield. Police stopped significantly fewer people, but the major disparity impacting Black drivers persisted, said local councilman Brian T Jackson.
“It’s reduced the chances that these bad encounters can happen, he said, noting the policy was not binding and officers still had wide discretion to make stops. “We should only be stopping people when there’s a legitimate safety reason.”
In 2020, Berkeley, California, initially proposed a sweeping reform that would put unarmed civilians in charge of traffic, but state law has prevented that overhaul. The city instead restricted stops for equipment violations, but Sinyangwe’s analysis found that the number of overall stops has remained fairly steady. He said he was concerned that cities were “targeting a very narrow category of traffic stops”, especially since the majority of deadly stops in the database stem from “moving violations”, such as speeding or driving through a stop sign.
Some progressive prosecutors have also worked to limit unjustified traffic stops. Sarah George, an elected Vermont prosecutor who heads the Chittenden county state’s attorney’s office, implemented a policy in December to decline charges in cases that stem from a “non public safety” traffic stop (such as an officer who found drugs during a stop for a broken taillight).
“My hope is that if police know that a drug possession case is not going to be prosecuted, maybe they’ll direct the resources elsewhere,” she said, adding that minor violations are often issues of poverty, such as inability to pay for new registration. “There are just a lot of traffic violations that do not need law enforcement attention, that shouldn’t even be traffic tickets and certainly shouldn’t be justification to pull somebody over.”