Guest Commentary: In Memphis, Minor Traffic Stops are Clogging Courts and Draining Resources

One year after Tyre Nichols’s killing by police, Tennessee has rolled back reforms aimed at decreasing traffic stops. New research shows this makes no sense.

By Sam McCann

This spring, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee reversed a series of reforms implemented by the city of Memphis after members of its police force killed Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop in 2023. The reforms in Memphis, called the Driving Equality Act in Honor of Tyre Nichols, had eliminated stops for driving offenses that have nothing to do with public safety, like broken taillights or expired registrations. Yet, after mere months on the books, Lee wiped those changes away.

The governor’s decision is a mistake. The Memphis community demanded an end to low-level stops for good reason, and not just because of Nichols’s killing: data shows that pulling over and charging someone for a minor violation does not make streets safer, and, indeed, comes at enormous cost to public resources.

Every year, police pull over 20 million people—an enormous expenditure of public resources. While police sometimes argue that these stops allow them to conduct searches and root out more dangerous crime, data shows that these searches rarely yield illegal firearms. According to one estimate, only about 0.3 percent of stops yield an arrest for contraband, making it an extremely inefficient approach to address crime. It’s a practice that compounds racial injustice, too: police stop Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers.

Other jurisdictions have implemented reforms like the ones Memphis passed and have seen overwhelmingly positive results. In Ramsey County, Minnesota, County Attorney John Choi stopped prosecuting felony cases arising from low-level traffic stops, a decision rooted both in data and in response to the police killing Philando Castile during a traffic stop in the county. As a result of Choi’s September 2021 policy change, Black drivers were pulled over 66 percent less often than they were before, and non–public–safety traffic stops declined dramatically, allowing police officers to allocate resources to greater public safety concerns. These positive changes did not impact the number of guns confiscated. Moreover, crime rose at higher rates in neighboring jurisdictions where Choi’s policy was not implemented than in places that followed his change.

The results in Ramsey County replicate similar findings in other parts of the country. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, racial disparities, crashes, and traffic deaths all fell between 2013 and 2016 after a series of changes curbed minor traffic stops. The success of the policy changes in Fayetteville and Ramsey County, as well as Philadelphia, has led to calls for expanding the policy to other jurisdictions. Those calls have come from all corners: organizers, civil liberties groups, Nichols’s family members, local officials, and even the American Automobile Association have appealed for legislation limiting the number of traffic stops that have nothing to do with public safety.

Identifying racism in traffic stops

For the past 15 months, Vera has partnered with local community researchers and Shelby County, Tennessee, District Attorney Steve Mulroy’s office, using a participatory action research model to examine what the people of Memphis need to build safe and thriving communities. The community researchers—a group of leaders working with young people in Memphis—designed their own research project, leveraging their connections to and understanding of the city’s neighborhoods to guide the study to meaningful answers in ways external researchers could not. This kind of community-led research has the potential to improve data collection and analysis.

As the researchers pooled their data, one prominent trend emerged.

“Quite a few of the people we spoke with, more than half, talked about traffic stops,” said Amiya Johnson, one of the community researchers. “Nearly every story was traumatic.” So, Johnson and her team began to zero in on issues around traffic stops.

Data from Mulroy’s office backed up the sheer number of stories involving traffic stops that community members told the researchers: between 2017 and 2023, almost 40 percent of all adult cases in Shelby County were traffic cases. Nearly one-third of all criminal cases during that time were related to canceled, suspended, or revoked licenses.

This allocation of public resources towards prosecuting people for minor, nonviolent offenses frustrated people interviewed by the researchers, who frequently cited poverty and a lack of public infrastructure as major drivers of crime.

“Memphis puts a lot of money into the wrong places,” said Johnson. “They are trying to make it into a tourist city. . . . People are getting pushed out of their communities.”

Not only do these low-level stops not build public safety, they can erode trust in the legal system. That’s particularly true in a segregated city like Memphis. The researchers heard from community members who felt like they were at risk of being pulled over for any minor thing, which could sometimes feel like a threat to their well-being. And Black participants mentioned their fear of driving through more affluent, white neighborhoods, where they were made to feel they didn’t belong.

“I’ve gotten pulled over countless times around the corner from my house for simple stuff, like a lane merge error or a seat belt or something like that,” said one person from East Memphis interviewed by researchers. “You get pulled over for stupid stuff all the time. Or, everywhere you go, you see two or three police cars in the parking lot. And I feel like that adds to the environment of it feeling like a jungle. . . . Kind of like you’re either worried about somebody potentially doing something to you or running into the police and them doing something to you.”

Bringing the numbers down

A “data walk” exhibit held this spring at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis illustrated the researchers’ findings around racial disparities in prosecution. In Shelby County, despite making up just 55 percent of the population, Black people represent 84 percent of both felony and misdemeanor cases brought by the district attorney’s office. That means that Black people in Shelby County are five times more likely to have a case filed than white people, part of a nationwide trend that underscores the fact that, without checks, the legal system will reproduce bias and racism. District Attorney Mulroy is committed to changing this. In 2023, his office reduced the number of prosecutions for traffic stops by 65 percent compared to 2017.

People interviewed by researchers offered other paths to reducing racial disparities and building public safety, including expanding diversion programs that can help reduce recidivism while also curtailing the county’s reliance on prosecution and incarceration.

Those solutions provide a roadmap towards justice in the wake of Governor Lee’s decision to undermine the reforms people in Shelby County fought for. Though Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly rolled back progress on ending low-level traffic stops in Memphis, the research findings in Shelby County, and the success of similar policy changes nationwide, emphasize the need to follow research and common sense, not scare tactics. Legislators across the country should continue to pursue laws that would end traffic stops that have nothing to do with public safety.

Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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