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When most Black American teenagers start driving, a parent or another trusted adult gives them some version of “The Talk”: how to behave during a police traffic stop to prevent the interaction from turning violent.
President Joe Biden referenced the talk during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, reeling off some of the common themes. “If a police officer pulls you over, turn your interior lights on right away. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel,” Biden said. It’s a speech, he noted, that he’d never had to give to his White children.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I first got on the road with a learner’s permit, and I still remember my talk vividly. My dad was sure to remind me of the time he got pulled over three times in one day — including for allegedly going just one mile over in a 35 mph zone.
There’s good reason for this grim Black tradition. Traffic stops are one of the most dangerous interactions that people of all races have with the police — but repeated studies and investigations have found that Black people get pulled over much more frequently than other groups. Take data from California, Bratenahl, Ohio, and Austin, Texas as just a few examples.
Violence isn’t the only concern. Research shows that these stops, especially when paired with punitive fees on low-income people, can reduce public trust in the police, and even suppress voter turnout.
Traffic stops are under renewed scrutiny after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee last month. Police officers beat Nichols after a traffic stop, allegedly for reckless driving. The Associated Press reported this week that the officers never told Nichols the reason for the stop before they pulled him from his vehicle, shouted expletives and conflicting demands at him, chased him and beat him.
In the wake of Nichols’ death, the Memphis City Council is considering proposals that would limit police authority to conduct traffic stops, and require officers to use clearly marked police vehicles during those stops. The officers who stopped Nichols were in an unmarked car. Under the proposed ordinance, officers who suspect a person is driving recklessly would still be able to stop a vehicle, but could not make stops for lesser violations, like a recently expired registration, improperly displayed license plate or a missing headlight.
There’s some precedent for phasing out traffic stops for minor infractions. Bloomberg’s City Lab recently noted that the state of Virginia, and cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco have halted such traffic stops. Lawmakers in Washington state proposed similar legislation last week.
In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, local police unions have filed lawsuits against these ordinances, arguing that they ignore state law and threaten public safety. In Pittsburgh, police officials have resumed low-level traffic stops in apparent defiance of the ordinance. The resistance comes even as traffic stops can also be one of the more dangerous interactions for police officers. A Philadelphia officer was shot and seriously injured during a traffic stop on Wednesday.
Berkeley, California, received national attention in 2020 for a plan to remove officers from traffic enforcement and replace them with cameras and unarmed civilians. So far, that promise has been stymied by state law, but Nichols’ death is propelling a related approach at the federal level. This week, New York Congressman Ritchie Torres proposed a $100 million grant program that would give money to cities that adopt a similar strategy for traffic enforcement.
There are other ways people are trying to change traffic stops. In Oakland, rather than restricting police authority, a Stanford University researcher examined the impact of adding a checkbox to routine paperwork that would force officers to “think harder about whether a traffic stop is necessary.” Her study found that this approach reduced stops involving Black drivers by 43%. In Windcrest City, Texas, police recently launched a “trusted driver” program that lets officers ticket drivers electronically, without pulling them over. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police recently joined a program where, instead of issuing citations for vehicle equipment violations, they can instead offer motorists a $250 voucher to have the problem repaired.
Lastly, a strategy some drivers use to feel safer during stops is to livestream the interaction to social media — though of course, doing so is no guarantee that police won’t escalate into violence. This week, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this kind of streaming is protected speech under the First Amendment.