By David M. Greenwald
While various notions of “defund” the police have drawn attention, not to mention controversy, where I see one of the most fruitful reform avenues is getting police to stop pretext stops. We have already seen a number of local communities tackle this issue—but it needs to gain more momentum.
It was therefore heartening to see that earlier this month Minnesota County Attorney John Choi, who is the one who charged and tried the officer responsible for shooting and killing Philando Castile, announced he would no longer prosecute people for traffic stops for expired tags and broken tail lights.
This is a big step—especially since it was during a traffic stop for a broken tail light that led former Office Jeronimo Yanez to fatally shooting Castile. Yanez would be acquitted of second degree manslaughter by a jury.
Choi said he prosecuted Yanez because Castile complied with the officer’s commands and posed no imminent threat.
In an interview with CNN, he compared police stopping motorists for minor traffic infractions to stop-and-or-frisk. Police will use the stop to stop, question and search the vehicle.
“I’m not going to continue to perpetuate these unjust practices, these police practices, that have really harsh results to our community,” Choi told CNN in an interview a few weeks ago.
He explained, “We really need to start thinking about the actual negative impact this has with police and community relationships and the outright racial disparity is telling by looking at the numbers.”
The announcement was part of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Motion for Justice initiative.
“These non-public safety stops, which are often referred to as pretextual stops, occur when a person is detained for a minor infraction while police seek evidence of a more serious crime,” a news release said.
“Research shows that racial and ethnic bias play a role in police decisions to make this type of traffic stop, and the decision comes as prosecutors are working to address systemic inequities and biases in their policies and practices.”
“Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Philando Castile would still be alive if prosecutors had adopted policies similar to the ones that John Choi and Carol Siemon have implemented,” said Akhi Johnson, Acting Director of the Reshaping Prosecution Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “In this moment of reckoning, prosecutors have a responsibility to question existing practices and seek to rectify biased policies that inflict deep harm on Black communities.”
The release cites additional evidence of the biased nature of these stops as well as the overall ineffectiveness.
“Evidence shows that non-public safety stops reflect racial bias, and police stop, question, and search people of color at higher rates than white people,” the release said. “In addition, non-public safety stops do not improve public safety, as the majority do not result in the discovery of contraband or weapons. When prosecutors condone non-public safety stops, they encourage police officers to focus on people, rather than actions, they deem ‘suspicious.’”
This has been borne out by a number of studies.
A May 2020 New York University Study, for instance, studied 100 million traffic stops across the nation and found Black drivers were 20% more likely to be stopped than white drivers.
Moreover, once stopped, Black drivers were searched up to twice as often as white drivers.
Consistently these studies have found that, while Blacks were more likely to be stopped and more likely to be searched, ” they were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their White peers.”
The study undertaken by Ravi Shroff is just one of many studies that have come out around the same time related to pretext stops and racial profiling.
The study was published in peer-reviewed journal Nature Human Behaviour.
The low yield rate for such stops demonstrates their ineffectiveness.
A slightly older study from 2018 came out in the book Suspect Citizens.
That study found, “Blacks were 63 percent more likely to be stopped even though, as a whole, they drive 16 percent less. Taking into account less time on the road, blacks were about 95 percent more likely to be stopped.
“Blacks were 115 percent more likely than whites to be searched in a traffic stop (5.05 percent for blacks, 2.35 percent for whites),” they found.
Once again, contraband was more likely to be found in searches of white drivers.
“So, black drivers were stopped disproportionately more than white drivers compared to the local population and were at least twice as likely to be searched, but they were slightly less likely to get a ticket,” Professor Kelsey Shoub, one of the authors, explained. “That correlates with the idea that black drivers were stopped on the pretext of having done something wrong, and when the officer doesn’t see in the car what he thought he might, he tells them to go on their way.”
They went beyond North Carolina as well. Shoub and her colleagues also analyzed stop data from 16 others states and found similar disparities.
Political Science Professor Frank Baumgartner at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies policing and policing tactics, labels traffic stops a “needle-in-the-haystack strategy” to detect crime and “an incredible waste of effort.”
Proposed language in San Francisco added, “These stops, without additional suspected criminal activity or probable cause, become pretextual … and do little to increase public safety, harm community relations, and are a waste of resources. Far too often these pretextual stops cause those already fearful of law enforcement to flee, leading to unnecessary force or violence.”
“As leaders in the justice system, we must step forward and fundamentally change a long-standing systemic injustice that has impacted generations of people in our community and across the country,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. “Recognizing the role we play as prosecutors in perpetuating racial inequalities that often result from these types of stops is an important first step in charting a new, less harmful course.”