Tyre Nichols was just two minutes away from his house when a group of Memphis police officers from the city’s so-called Scorpion unit pulled his car over. When Nichols was taken out of his vehicle, his protest was simple. “I didn’t do anything,” he can be heard saying in police body camera footage.
Less than an hour later, Nichols was en route to the hospital, having suffered a police beating that would ultimately claim his life. In the aftermath of Nichols’s death, the Memphis Police Department disbanded the Scorpion unit that was designed to target crime in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
It is also, now, considering limiting how and why police can make traffic stops — a familiar municipal response to a brutal episode of police violence in a country where, according to data from Mapping Police Violence, police have killed more than eight hundred people following traffic stops since 2017. The victims of that violence have, like the victims of all police violence in the United States, been disproportionately black. In the aftermath of particularly high-profile police killings, like that of Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Nichols in Memphis, media outlets like the New York Times and the BBC have run stories asking the same basic question: What is it about traffic stops that causes them to turn deadly?
There are several possible answers. Police officers and criminologists, for example, often blame the prevalence of violence following traffic stops on police training that frames those stops as inherently unpredictable and dangerous for officers. The notion that traffic stops are especially dangerous for officers isn’t conclusively backed by data: an estimate published in the Michigan Law Review three years ago pegged the rate at which officers are assaulted during routine traffic stops at just one in every 6,959 stops, and the rate at which they’re feloniously killed at just one in 6.5 million stops. But police trainings haven’t adjusted.
Another view is simply that police interactions are always dangerous, particularly for people of color, whether at traffic stops or anywhere else. Traffic stops just happen to be the primary way the general public interacts with police officers. “Traffic stops turn violent because the act of policing is rooted in force and violence,” Woods Ervin, communications director for Critical Resistance, told Jacobin.
The police officers who beat Nichols have been charged with second-degree murder, but they’re anomalies. The New York Times surveyed four hundred cases in which a police officer killed an unarmed motorist; of all those cases, only five officers were ever convicted of a crime — even though the Times found that police officers making traffic stops all too often unnecessarily escalated confrontations with motorists and then shot them in “self-defense.”
Traffic stops have long played an outsize role in American policing. Akhi Johnson, director of the Reshaping Prosecution Initiative at Vera, told Jacobin that this is no coincidence.
“Not only are police trained that those are stressful situations, they are also trained to use them as investigative tactics to try to ferret out evidence and that traffic stops are this incredible public safety tool,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a former assistant US attorney, said that traffic stops fall into two categories: what police officers describe as “must-stop” situations, where a person is driving recklessly or endangering the safety of other people on the road, and “can stop” situations, where a person is not endangering anyone’s safety but an officer decides to pull them over anyway for a reason often tenuously related or completely unrelated to public health.
Pretextual stops, in which officers pull over drivers for a minor traffic-related infraction in order to investigate them for an unrelated offense, fall into the latter category — and it’s those stops that disproportionately impact people of color and low-income neighborhoods. A study of fourteen years of traffic stop data in North Carolina found that black drivers were 95 percent more likely than white drivers to be pulled over and 115 percent more likely than white drivers to be searched during a stop, even though searches of white drivers more often uncovered contraband.
“The real damage in that is if you’re a driver, and you were speeding way over the limit and you get pulled over, you get it — you know you weren’t supposed to be doing it [and] it doesn’t tend to impact your perceptions of law enforcement,” Johnson said. “When you aren’t doing anything wrong and you get pulled over time and time again, it erodes your trust in law enforcement, it erodes your trust in government, and that makes all of us less safe.”
Johnson’s claim has empirical backing. A recent study conducted in Tampa found that getting stopped by police makes a person less likely to vote — a point that Ervin argues underscores how policing, like the rest of the carceral system, is used as a method of exerting social control and effectively excluding certain groups of people from the democratic process.
In few places was that clearer than in Ferguson, Missouri, in the lead-up to the killing of Michael Brown. A study conducted by the St Louis nonprofit Better Together found that court fees made up a quarter of Ferguson’s budget, giving police officers an effective imperative to pull drivers over in a scheme that former St Louis alderman Antonio French described as “taxation by citation.” In 2013, the year before Brown was killed, 86 percent of police stops in Ferguson and 92 percent of searches were of black people.
There is an emerging consensus in major cities that these “can stop” traffic stops aren’t doing anything to improve public safety. San Francisco is one of a number of cities that have recently moved to limit the circumstances under which officers can make pretextual stops — banning officers from making stops for low-level offenses like driving without working taillights or driving with an item hanging from a mirror. The San Francisco order also limits when officers can ask to search a person’s vehicle or ask investigatory questions following a stop to when they have concrete evidence of criminal activity.
“The overall goal is to be smart about how we use the limited law enforcement resources that we have,” Max Carter-Oberstone, vice president of the San Francisco police commission, told Jacobin. “A huge volume of our stops are for low-level offenses that don’t pose any threat to people on our roadways, and for which we are not recovering guns, drugs, or making arrests. These stops are just a horribly inefficient use of our law enforcement resources.”
Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have also passed laws limiting the use of pretextual stops. Minneapolis two years ago began exploring the creation of an unarmed Traffic Safety division that would take traffic law enforcement away from the city’s police department following public safety logic popularized during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising; Berkeley has attempted to institute a similar plan but has thus far been stopped by California state law.
A handful of national politicians are beginning to pick up the picture as well — a bill introduced in the US House by Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York would establish a $100 million annual grant program for cities that reassign traffic law enforcement to unarmed officers or technology. The fact that police unions in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are fighting limitations on their traffic stop powers suggests in itself that the stops serve a purpose aside from public safety.
Whether or not reassigning the work of policing away from police would make a decisive long-term impact remains to be seen. But if limiting the police officers’ ability to make arbitrary stops is important because it limits their ability to spin those stops into other charges and fines, it’s also important because there is scant evidence that any other sort of police reform measure effectively cuts down on police violence. The officers who beat Nichols were all black. They wore body cameras. They were armed, but they didn’t use their guns. None of it mattered.
“Police are trained to read the need for force in most situations,” Ervin said. “That is actually core to what their function is. It’s the actual act of policing that leads to the violent police encounter. Yes, it’s the cops, but more it’s doing cop work.”