Police kill far too many people during traffic stops. We must change why stops are made.
To protect motorists and police, limit minor traffic stops, eliminate incentives for ticketing revenue and teach drivers about policing protocols.
Police have killed more than 1,000 Americans this year – more than any other point in the past decade, according to recent data from Mapping Police Violence.
Given the nation’s recent emphasis on police reform, this should be surprising. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, lawmakers have attempted to mitigate police violence by addressing illegal and fatal police tactics. Yet police are still killing about three people a day.
And many of these deaths occur during traffic stops. To protect motorists and police, we need better protocols.
Reform traffic stop procedures
An analysis of Mapping Police Violence’s full database reveals that 730 people have been killed in traffic stops since 2017. For nearly 70% of these deaths, there is no body or dash cam footage.
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In many cases, the police department responsible refused to provide details or justification. Purported traffic violations account for about 40% of these killings, and almost half of those involved individuals under the influence of drugs, alcohol or with mental illness.
In nearly 430 of these fatal traffic stops, the victim was suspected of carrying a weapon, but in 20% of the cases – that's more than 80 deaths – the individual turned out to be unarmed.
In about 350 deadly incidents, the officer initiated a traffic stop for unspecified circumstances, or the police department responsible refused to provide details or justification.
To reduce police violence, states need to reform their policies:
►Limit stops for minor traffic violations. Given the number of police killings in instances of nonviolent offenses, more states need to adopt policies to prevent police from pulling over nonthreatening vehicles. Cities such as Los Angles and Philadelphia have passed legislation to end unnecessary traffic stops.
These reforms aim to decrease unnecessary exposures to danger and to mitigate police’s tendency toward racial bias. Rather than pulling vehicles over for minor traffic violations with intent to investigate for larger offenses, officers are expected to determine whether a vehicle is involved in a serious crime before pulling them over.
Stop tying traffic stops to police department revenue
►Eliminate incentives for ticket revenue. The financial incentive for police to stop drivers has been an issue for a long time, as many communities rely heavily on ticket revenue. In January, the Brookside Police Department in Alabama (population 1,253) gave out so many tickets that the police department grossed an equivalent of $487 from every person in the community, increasing the town’s revenue more than 600% in just three years, according to AL.com.
Local and state governments are so dependent on officers' traffic stops for revenue, they often evaluate officers based on ticket “quotas,” attaching monetary gain or promotions to the number of tickets issued.
Not only are police departments awarding monetary gain to officers with high ticket quotas, but the federal government awards municipalities money for the number of tickets issued. This negative financial incentive goes all the way to the top, establishing a system conducive to corruption.
To date, more than 20 states have prohibited quotas. For states seeking revenue to offset tax increases, the federal government should provide grant money rather than encouraging penalties for minor incidents.
Teach drivers about policing protocols
►Create national campaign for traffic stop awareness. Police academies train recruits in basic traffic stop fundamentals, but motorists in driving school do not get the run-down on police procedures. This unpreparedness increases the risk of danger for both motorists and officers. The lack of standardization in traffic stop conduct is a real problem.
In 2020, a Connecticut prosecutor cleared Wethersfield police officer Layau Eulizier after he fatally shot an 18-year-old driver in an attempted traffic stop: "Officer Eulizier discharged his firearm in fear that the operator was about to run him over and that he would lose his own life. His belief that deadly force was needed to defend himself and others from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force was objectively reasonable."
Motorists can send mixed signals to officers or be wary of traffic stops, especially if they’re a person of color. Teaching drivers about police protocol and their rights and responsibilities would promote safe and effective roadside communication.
Some organizations already offer this kind of roadside safety education. The National Association of Black Law Enforcement hosts events in Black communities to teach people the risk of traffic stops, how to act when stopped by police given what police are trained to watch for, and what their actions will communicate to their officers.
Police reforms so far aren’t keeping people from dying. The only way to protect motorists and officers is to limit traffic stops and to promote clear communication between officers and citizens after the sirens have sounded.
Young Voices contributor Finesse Moreno-Rivera has worked with federal and state institutions such as the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the FBI.
This is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
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