• Ideas
  • justice

If We Want to Reduce Deaths at Hands of Police, We Need to Reduce Traffic Stops

7 minute read
Thaddeus Johnson, a former police officer, is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and teaches criminology at Georgia State University. His wife, Natasha Johnson, is a faculty member at Georgia State and director of the university’s master’s program in criminal justice administration.

Less than 2 thousandths of a percent—or less than 1 in every 45,000—of police-citizen encounters end with a citizen fatality. But when a citizen does die, a Black American is twice as likely as a white person to be the victim.

Tyre Nichols’ alleged murder is the latest in a spate of seemingly avoidable high-profile police killings of Black men in the U.S. Some blame these incidents on a few “bad apples.” Others contend these tragedies reflect a system riddled with institutional and cultural failures imbued in broader systemic inequities.

For us as Black Americans and scholars of criminal justice, Nichols’ all-too-familiar-demise again shows how race and pretextual policing intersect at fatal police encounters.

What separates pretextual practices from other police-initiated activities is that the stop itself is not of primary importance. Instead, officers use the opportunity to gain consent to search from citizens or develop probable cause to search for contraband (e.g., drug possession and active warrants).

The open practice of racial profiling is prohibited. But pretextual stops have historically been used to enforce laws, with police acting on racial stereotypes and biases to stop and search people who “look suspicious.”

A fraught history of excessive force and generations of adversarial relations with police has left many Black people afraid of law enforcement, causing them to approach police interactions expecting unfair treatment and brutality.

Numerous studies reveal that relative to white drivers, Black drivers experience less favorable outcomes, more intensive police scrutiny, and less civility once detained by police on the road.

As a result of discriminatory policing, many Black Americans have developed grievances and lost faith in the police. Consequently, many acts of civilian resistance are actually expressions of fear and desperation, and not necessarily defiance. Some research suggests these factors largely explain why officers face higher rates of non-compliance in Black neighborhoods. Adding to the tension, narratives of Black criminality and violence steeped in racism may lead both white and Black officers to anticipate trouble when dealing with Black men in particular.

Read More: Tyre Nichols’ Death Is the Result of a Diseased Culture

Traffic stops represent the most common interaction between police and citizens. Every day, the U.S. police force pulls over more than 50,000 drivers. Many of these stops are intended to help maintain safe roadways. But a large share is based on motives unrelated to motorists’ driving. In pretextual stops, for instance, officers pull over drivers for minor traffic or equipment violations as a guise to inconspicuously investigate criminal activity.

Black drivers, especially young men, are more likely to be stopped for pretextual or low-level traffic violations like a broken tail light or tinted windows. But despite the uneven police scrutiny, no conclusive evidence indicates Black drivers offend more than white ones. And while Black male drivers are more likely to be searched, they are less likely to be found with contraband.

Studies in major cities, including Nashville, Tenn, show that pretext stops turn up low rates of criminal evidence and have little to no effect on crime. Still, police insist that these stops are critical to combating crimes like drugs and weapons possession.

As a former police officer, one of us (Thaddeus Johnson) understands why pretextual stops remain prevalent in law enforcement.

For one, traffic stops send the message that police are closely watching and working hard to arrest criminals. Another reason is that traffic stops represent one of the few ways officers feel they can tackle crime directly. Lastly, police incentive structures encourage pretextual practices. That is, officer evaluations based primarily on standard performance metrics like traffic stops, citations issued, and arrests compel officers to focus their attention on these parts of the job.

But pretext stops have also resulted in many challenges. Beyond disproportionately exposing Black drivers to police contacts that are inconvenient at best and physically harmful at worst, negative encounters with law enforcement threaten to further undermine public trust and police legitimacy. Federal police reform negotiations broke down in 2021, and a reeling nation is depending on the newly elected Congress to get it right this time.

Recognizing the immediate need for change, state and local governments stepped in and implemented various laws since Derek Chauvin suffocated George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. three years ago. For example, at least 21 states have enacted laws addressing officer decertification, and most states have adopted laws targeting data transparency to hold officers and agencies accountable and deter misconduct.

Unfortunately, many of these changes fail to address core problems in American law enforcement: Before truly transformative change can occur, a solid foundation is required. The Council on Criminal Justice’s (CCJ) Task Force on Policing, composed of law enforcement leaders, civil rights lawyers and activists, and victims of police violence, accessed the available research and recommended five priorities for police reform. These recommendations set the groundwork for more meaningful and sustainable reform and cover the following:

  • Increased data collection and transparency.
  • Duty-to-intervene and mandatory reporting requirements.
  • Trauma-informed approaches that enable police to better understand why citizens respond the way they do to officers.
  • National training standards, especially for de-escalation and problem-solving skills.
  • A federal decertification registry to prevent bad officers from bouncing from one department to another.
  • Indeed, many of these reforms will take time to implement and do little in the interim to reduce violent encounters between officers and the public.

    In the meantime, agencies can make changes in two key areas without having to wait on slow-moving bureaucratic processes or compromising public safety.

    First, to minimize racial imbalances in traffic enforcement, policymakers should take notes from several U.S. jurisdictions working to increase police accountability, prohibit racial profiling, limit traffic stops for low-level infractions, and restrict the circumstances under which officers can ask for consent to search vehicles.

    For instance, when police in Fayetteville, N.C. reprioritized traffic enforcement from minor infractions such as expired tags to more serious violations of speeding and running traffic lights, the crime rates dipped, and there was more racial balance in stops and searches.

    Other cities like Cincinnati took this approach as part of a larger initiative. City residents experienced lower crime, positive changes in their attitudes toward police, reduced traffic stop and arrest disparities, and fewer use-of-force incidents. Officers benefited too, as they also suffered fewer injuries.

    Pretextual stops are awful for officer development, too. Officers must reach specific benchmarks to compete for better pay, shifts, and career opportunities. Whether officers devote their energies toward arrests or community engagement hinges heavily on the goals that departmental reward structures prioritize.

    Reward systems send powerful messages to employees about “how things are done” and exemplify organizational values and culture. When agencies herald activities like arrests and citations as “real police work,” other essential public safety functions go unrewarded. Officers might then rely less on discretion and, instead, opt for a “by the book” response in situations that allow for a less formal approach.

    Officers spend much more time handling routine calls and interacting with citizens than they do chasing and apprehending lawbreakers. Some researchers estimate that officers spend less than a quarter of their time carrying out traditional crime-fighting activities.

    Of course, conventional crime control is sometimes necessary to preserve order and protect lives. But by emphasizing more punitive crime control, numerous facets of police work are discouraged, including community building, innovative problem-solving, effective communication, and civility. In this light, stats-driven policing compels officers to use their authority for self-serving reasons and not necessarily to advance public safety.

    However, regardless of intent, hard-charging enforcement facilitates more unpleasant and unwelcome police contact for Black Americans particularly. Such activities needlessly put officers at greater risk of using serious force, especially when performed by those officers or units favoring more heavy-handed approaches.

    To reduce these inequitable practices, police agencies must adjust incentive and evaluation systems to encourage evidence-based enforcement practices that carry real public safety value rather than fleeting gains from trivial stops and arrests. Failing to heed this call will only result in the unnecessary loss of more lives.

    More Must-Reads From TIME

    Contact us at letters@time.com

    TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.