Given the proximity of the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright to the ongoing trial of former officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, it is impossible to entirely separate the two tragedies in American hearts and minds. Two unarmed Black men are dead after Minnesotan police officers used excessive force against them. Neither of these deaths should have occurred and the outrage people feel about them is justified. But as a policy matter, Wright’s death seems to have far more in common with the police killing of Philando Castile in 2016.
From what we know so far, both the Wright and Castile killings occurred during police stops for minor vehicular infractions, and both had multiple previous encounters with law enforcement in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex. Wright, who was 20 years old, was pulled over ostensibly for an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror after the officer discovered he had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in court. It is common in many police departments to run license plates for past offenses, insurance status, and outstanding warrants when they want to know more about the driver of any given car. Thus, if a department — or, in Castile’s case — a set of suburban departments all have policies that encourage officers to stop drivers for minor violations, those fines and arrests pile up. Castile, who was 32 when he was killed, had been subjected to almost 50 stops in the previous 13 years before his death.
Castile had been pulled over for a malfunctioning tail-light, the most recent traffic stop in a string of them over more than a decade. According to a New York Times article published shortly after his death, St. Paul metro area police had stopped Castile 49 times over 13 years. A National Public Radio report cataloged 46 of Castile’s traffic stops. Only one of them cited exceeding the posted speed limit, while another resulted in a citation for running a stop sign, and three others for more ambiguous moving violations: for “interfering” or “impeding” traffic, or “reduced speed required.” The rest of the violations were for failure to wear a seatbelt, a primary (stoppable) offense, or for some unobservable violations, like driving on a suspended license, that cannot be used as a reason for stopping a vehicle. Little in the public record suggests Castile was a bad driver, meaning he was likely stopped for reasons wholly separate from traffic safety. Indeed, with almost 50 stops for minor issues, Castile seems to have been an ad absurdum case-in-point for the pretextual investigative stops highlighted in [a] Kansas City study.
Aggressive stop policies have social costs. Most people who get stopped by police are not physically harmed by the encounter, let alone killed. Yet police don’t seem to understand that creating pretextual reasons to pull people over to investigate them, fine them, or arrest them has negative effects on individual well-being and community relations. And as we dig into the available data, we see — predictably — that these pretextual stops heavily skew against Black and Hispanic drivers across the country, despite the vast majority of people stopped are guilty of no crime and may have committed only minor and effectively meaningless traffic infractions.
Police departments and policymakers need to rein in police officers from making unnecessary antagonistic contact with the public. That means, among other things, devaluing arrests and stops as metrics to judge police performance. This does not require cops sit back and do nothing, or never engage the public. There is value in cops getting to know the communities they serve, talking to neighbors and business owners in truly voluntary friendly conversation.
But traffic stops — the involuntary interruption in the lives of individuals going about their days — should be limited to improving traffic safety, stopping dangerous driving and the like, or when police have legitimate reason to believe a driver is a danger to themselves or others. Looking for crimes and people with records are self-fulfilling practices that bolster police numbers and often without any measurable impact on public safety. The more unnecessary stops a police department makes, the more likely tragedies like the killings of Daunte Wright and Philando Castile happen.
There’s no excuse for these anymore.
To read more about why police need to end pretextual stops, you can read my 2016 essay in the Case Western Reserve Law Review, Thin Blue Lies: How Pretextual Stops Undermine Police Legitimacy.