Dallas Police
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Philando Castile and Walter Scott were pulled over for broken tail lights. Samuel DuBose was stopped for no front license plate and Sandra Bland for failing to signal a lane change. During these traffic stops, officers shot and killed Castile, DuBose and Scott. Bland was arrested and died in police custody in what has been labeled suicide. All four died as the result of a specific, official police practice that is as widespread and lauded within professional policing as it is unknown to the general public. This practice is the investigatory vehicle stop, the vehicular equivalent of the stop-and-frisk. And like stop-and-frisk, this practice overwhelmingly targets blacks and Latinos and minority communities.

Police stops that end badly are usually thought to be the acts of rogue cops, unprofessional police departments or good cops making tragic mistakes. Without doubt some cops are racist and some departments are unprofessional, and these problems should be addressed.

But if Americans are to have a truly frank conversation about race and policing, then confronting the human costs of the professionally-accepted investigatory stop practice should be at the heart of it. For in developing this practice the police have responded to Americans’ desire for proactive police crime fighting even as they have honed the investigatory stop without sufficient public oversight and attention to its human costs. The ongoing tragedies arising from its implementation, however, should force a reexamination.

Bland, Castile, DuBose and Scott were stopped for minor violations, but in each case the interaction between officer and driver was tense from the start and escalated toward a tragic end. Our research, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and published in our book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship reveals that escalating tension in stops made for minor violations are predictable elements of the investigatory police stop.

To understand why, consider how police carry out an investigatory stop and how people experience it, versus the ordinary police stop familiar to white drivers. What follows is based on a unique view into the police-stop experience made possible by our interviews with 2,329 drivers, 708 of whom had been stopped by the police in the past year. (See also our prior research, which we wrote about in the Washington Monthly, here.) From these interviews we learned that drivers’ experiences of stops clustered into two easily-recognized patterns. One was of being stopped for a significant traffic-safety violation, like driving at ten or fifteen miles-per-hour over the limit. Both black and white drivers are stopped in this way, and our data reveal that the race of the driver has no significant influence on who is stopped. In true traffic-safety stops, we do not find evidence of racial profiling. Our interviews also revealed that officers generally deal with these violations in a business-like manner by issuing a ticket (or sometimes a warning) and then letting the driver go with an admonition to slow it down. It is usually over in a few minutes and the driver generally accepts the fairness of being stopped and ticketed for speeding. For real speeding, that is. Paradoxically, our interviews with black drivers found that many were relieved to learn that they had been stopped for speeding, to experience a normal traffic stop even if it meant a ticket and fine.

Being stopped for speeding two miles-per-hour over the limit, the sort of justification commonly used to make an investigatory stop, feels quite different. In such a stop the officer’s purpose is to investigate the driver for suspected criminality — a suspicion often based on guesswork, not probable cause. Officers use whatever violation they can find to justify the stop. In Castile’s case, the officer reportedly radioed in to police dispatch that he thought Castile fit the description of the suspect in an armed robbery a few days before — “just ‘cause of the wide set nose,” a description that would fit many young black men and others besides — and that “I have a reason” to make the stop. As in the stop of Walter Scott, who was shot fleeing his stopped car, this pretextual justification was a broken taillight. Black drivers in our study told us of being stopped for failing to signal a lane change, having a burned-out license-plate light and, yes, for speeding at two miles over the limit. In these stops drivers told us the officer then began to ask unrelated questions, like “What are you doing in the neighborhood?” “Where are you going?” “Is this your car?” “Are you carrying any illegal drugs?” In some cases the officer asked whether the driver would mind letting the officer look around in the car just to be sure.

These are criminal investigations that in many cases are little more than a fishing expedition. Our data reveal that black drivers are nearly three times more likely than white drivers to experience such stops. In these investigatory stops, African Americans are five times more likely than whites to be searched. Yet, blacks are dramatically less likely than whites to be found carrying drugs or a weapon. Put simply, most people stopped in this way are innocent.

Black drivers told us again and again that they found this experience deeply unsettling. “I was scared,” Deana told us. Joe said, “I felt violated.” Darrell, who told us an officer said he fit the description for a burglary suspect and then held him and two black friends in handcuffs for an hour, only to be let go, told us, “I felt really bad.”

Drivers who feel “really bad” or “violated” often want to challenge the fairness of the stop. They want to say something to the officer. But we learned that they know that doing this might provoke an escalation in tension and they fear where it may go. Darrell told us he “kept cool about it” because he didn’t want to make the situation worse. Timothy told us that “I really fear the worst. I try not to move; I try not to do anything that it would give them an opportunity to think that I’m gonna try to make a move. And that’s a hell of a way to live. That is the truth.”

Officers told us they, too, try to avoid escalations. In fact, our statistical analysis reveals that officers are more likely to take steps to deescalate tense interactions in investigatory stops of black drivers than of white drivers. In most of the investigatory stops described to us in interviews the driver and officer succeeded in avoiding an escalation.

But several drivers told us harrowing stories of stops gone wrong, of escalations that seemed to suddenly careen toward violence. In every case these involved black drivers. Billy, who spoke of being pulled over for failing to stop at a stop sign that he was sure he had obeyed, said he asked the officer, “Why are you stopping me, because I’m a poor man in a ragged car?” He said the officer responded by yelling “show me your hands, show me your hands!” as he pulled his gun and pointed it at Billy’s head. Billy said, “That was pretty frightening.” Joe told us an officer pulled his gun on him when he challenged a stop for a “warrant check.”

The line between the low-level violence of a routine, often polite, investigatory stop and Tasers or guns drawn and shots fired is razor thin. Our data show that the interaction between officer and driver is considerably more strained in investigatory stops than traffic-safety stops. This heightened tension reflects the fact that officers are acting in ways regarded by most drivers as highly intrusive, invasive and basically unfair — and officers know this, are already suspicious of the driver and are prepared to use force to maintain control. They have converted a stop for a trivial violation into a deeply unsettling criminal investigation. They are asking questions, like what are you doing in this neighborhood, that drivers feel are none of the officer’s business and appear to suggest that the officer believes the driver has no right to be there.

We were startled to learn how common this experience is for African American drivers. Half of the stops reported to us by black drivers fit the investigatory stop pattern. These stops add up. Police records show  that in their all too brief lives, both Philando Castile and Samuel DuBose were stopped more than 50 times for minor traffic offenses, stops that led to fines, warrants and more stops. In our data, more than 9 percent of black men under age 50 told us they, too, had been stopped over 50 times. Only a third of white drivers’ stops were for minor violations, and most of these experiences are considerably less invasive than those reported by black drivers. These estimates are derived from a careful survey using standard scientific sampling techniques. Simply put, investigatory stops are widely and frequently deployed, and especially target African Americans.

Investigatory stops are so common not because there are so many rogue cops but because the practice enjoys widespread official endorsement. For years it has been celebrated as an effective policing tactic by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Highway Transportation Safety Commission and many leading police departments. Leading police scholars have promoted stops for trivial offenses — broken taillights policing — as a means to reduce serious crime. Supreme Court decisions have affirmed the legality of using any violation, no matter how small, as the justification for a stop that is then converted into a search. The practice’s supporters believe it leads to the arrest of serious criminals and helps to suppress crime. In fact, the evidence on this is mixed. And supporters rarely acknowledge the costs.

Yet, our data reveal that the practice has deep human costs. Even drivers who are let go with no formal penalty and are treated courteously feel scared or violated. As African Americans are stopped more frequently in this way than whites, the practice reinforces the racial divide in American society by leaving whites comparatively free of a form of surveillance and control that is a life-defining experience for many African Americans and Latinos. By eroding trust in the police among these groups, the practice contributes to the crisis in American policing.

Add to these largely hidden costs the growing number of people shot in the tense interaction of an investigatory stop. The fact that some of these invasive stops escalate toward violence should be no surprise. But this means that the deaths of people like Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, and Walter Scott are the inevitable consequence of a deliberate policing practice, not the result of avoidable mistakes or rogue cops. It is past time to interrogate this practice.

Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody

Charles Epp and Steven Maynard-Moody are professors at the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. They are coauthors, with Donald Haider-Markel, of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship. Their research is based on a 2005 study funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation.