by Patrick Gaspard, Rashad Robinson and Nicholas Turner
The Department of Justice announced last week that it will review the use of force by the Memphis Police Department. It also plans to examine the operations of specialized police units such as the one responsible for killing Tyre Nichols.
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The decision by federal authorities to launch a probe into the events that led to Nichols’ killing is welcome news. We can’t afford to wait for the investigation’s results, however, to fix a problem that endangers Black lives every day: needless traffic stops.
As three Black men, we know firsthand the worry of whether the everyday act of driving will end in tragedy for ourselves, our brothers and sisters, or nieces and nephews and children — just as it did for Nichols. And as leaders of three of the nation’s largest organizations committed to criminal and racial justice, we understand that there are concrete steps we can take to enact policies that make traffic stops safer for our families and for all Black Americans.
Statistics show just how dangerous driving while Black can be: Traffic stops are one of the most common ways police encounter the public. Police make 20 million stops each year, according to research. Black motorists are less likely than White drivers to possess illegal items such as drugs or weapons, but they are stopped more often, and after a traffic stop they are more likely to be searched.
Of the more than 1,000 people killed by police each year, 10% involved traffic stops. The most common stated reasons for a traffic stop? One study found that nearly half were for minor issues such as a broken taillight, a defective or missing license plate or tinted windows. Why is this the work of armed police officers?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that those 20 million stops are at all necessary, targeted efforts to deliver safety. Traffic stops are a major moneymaker, and Black people know this. Some towns and cities generate at least 10% of their annual budgets from traffic stop revenue.
Traffic stops are poor tools for fighting crime and make the roadways markedly less safe for Black drivers. Black people in this country and law enforcement come into contact entirely too often; changing the way traffic stops happen in this nation is foundational to any discussion about police reform.
States and localities have an important role to play by passing laws and ordinances to end or at least limit the use of traffic stops for low-level issues that do not affect safety — such as a broken taillight or tinted windows.
Following Nichols’ death, the Memphis City Council acquiesced to public demands and took a step in the right direction by considering an ordinance that will redirect police away from low-level traffic stops. But no city or state should wait until a tragedy occurs or they’re under the scrutiny of media attention before acting.
Some states have adopted or are considering similar policies, including Virginia, Oregon and Washington, as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Minnesota, Michigan and Vermont have found law enforcement practices resulting from traffic stops so gratuitously harmful that they have refused to charge cases that emerge from them.
Traffic stops have proven to be deadly from coast to coast, but waiting for municipalities to solve the problem means that Black Americans living in these cities and states could be vulnerable any time they decide to travel. Immediate action is needed, and the Biden administration must take the lead.
The police who killed Tyre Nichols were Black. But they might still have been driven by racism
The US Department of Transportation sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in highway safety funding to states on the condition that localities engage in traffic enforcement. By reforming traffic stops, federal, state and local leaders can save countless lives.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg should instruct his department to disburse safety grants to localities that limit low-level traffic stops and rely on traffic enforcement methods other than police, including civilian traffic professionals who can address road safety issues without the intimidation — and possible danger — of a badge and a gun.
States and cities can also eliminate the basis for millions of traffic stops in the first place by offering vouchers for free repairs and services to motorists to fix broken taillights, replace a defective or missing license plate, or renew a lapsed registration. Several counties and cities have launched these kinds of programs, including Long Island’s Suffolk County, New York and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
None of these reforms require more policing, or more funding for police. They would all increase safety in Black communities that are overpoliced yet underserved. Police funding can go toward investigating and resolving real crimes, rather than undermining the legitimacy of law enforcement in our communities.
We, as a society, must stop incentivizing police departments to conduct traffic enforcement on what amounts to low-level offenses. We must not wait until the next tragedy to take action on these concrete steps forward. That is the best way to honor Tyre Nichols and countless others who have been surveilled, harassed and too often killed while doing something as simple as driving while Black.