Editor’s Note: Maya Wiley is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She was a 2021 candidate for New York City mayor. The views in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Tyre Nichols, who will be laid to rest on Wednesday, was killed for driving while Black. The former Memphis police officers fired for his killing will get an opportunity to defend themselves in court against the criminal charges, as they should. Nichols got no such opportunity.
So often in cases like these, the victim is on trial. But here, not only has the Memphis Police Department deemed the force used to detain him excessive, it also stated that there is no evidence that Nichols was even driving recklessly, the asserted reason he was stopped in the first place. Since the firing of the five police officers charged in his death, two additional officers have been relieved of duty, as have three EMT workers.
The question we should be asking now is, why are Black people stopped so often for traffic violations? Why are so many across the United States dying at the hands, or tasers or guns of police officers during these stops? And what can be done to change this horrific situation?
Here’s one thing we know: Body cameras are not the answer. Body camera footage is not prevention; there was body camera footage of Nichols’ killing. It is evidence, not a prophylactic.
Even the concern about the release of the footage – a fear that protests could turn into conflict, or an uprising – is evidence of society’s failure to make good on the promises of reform after the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd nearly three years ago.
The scope of the problem is immense: Study after study has shown that Black people are overpoliced when it comes to traffic stops. Stanford researchers gathered data on 100 million traffic stops between 2011 and 2017. One hundred million.
They found that Black and Latino drivers are much more likely to be stopped and searched for less reason and even though more illegal items are found on white drivers who are stopped and searched.
These conclusions get repeated in many studies. A South Carolina study of 14 years of police stops showed that Black drivers are 63% more likely to be stopped and 115% more likely to be searched than white drivers, even though they drive less.
Police officers in Grand Rapids, Michigan shot Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man, in the back of the head after he was stopped for having a license plate that didn’t match the car he was driving. A former police officer, who claims he shot Lyoya in self defense, is facing trial in the case and has been charged with second degree murder.
A Michigan study showed Black people were significantly more likely to be stopped than White people. Most recently, Keenan Anderson, a teacher, recently died from being shocked with a Taser repeatedly by a Los Angeles Police officer. Anderson had flagged down officers at a traffic collision. His relatives have filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, which declined to comment on the suit.
A California study of 4 million traffic stops found Black people much more likely to be searched (20%) than White people (8%), even though slightly more contraband is found on White people during stops.
According to Mapping Police Violence, a non-profit research program, 10% of police killings each year happen during traffic stops. Black drivers are 28% of the people police have killed, while only being 13% of the population.
A New York Times investigation in 2021 found that, over a five year period, 600 people were killed by police during traffic stops. Don’t think this is about public safety. It found that 400 of the drivers or passengers killed had no weapon, nor were being pursued for a violent crime.
Police killings have not declined since George Floyd’s murder. We have heard cries for more police and policing in light of some upticks in certain categories of crime. We have too rarely heard discussion of how often Black people pay the price for racial stereotypes, especially when simply driving a car.
The infamous Scorpion Unit, to which the officers who killed Tyre Nichols belonged, has been disbanded. Calls to dismantle “street crime” units like this have occurred in other parts of the country where wrongful stops and searches and harassment have plagued Black communities.
We police Blackness, too often, and real crime too seldom. As for traffic stops, we don’t need to ask police officers to spend their time on broken tail lights, or other small infractions that do not require a badge and a gun.
And importantly, officers who violate the rules that govern them must be disciplined, including White police officers, who are less likely to be disciplined than Black officers. Consistency in discipline matters when any officer violates their training or the patrol guide rules and for lying, which is all too common to cover up their own violations.
The truth is we have the solutions, we just need the will to be fair and just so that we are all, including Black drivers, safe. There are many steps we can and should take to make it safe to drive while Black. The Vera Institute has documented and suggested reforms.
One is to take armed police out of the business of policing low level infractions. Philadelphia took this step last year. Some cities have cameras that catch and send tickets for speeding. And not-for-profit in Minneapolis is giving vouchers to fix broken head or tail lights, to reduce contact with police.
The federal government can use the carrot of grants to help cities create safe, alternative ways to address low level violations and the stick of requiring tracking and addressing discriminatory policing that results in Black harassment and harm. Putting an end to that Black harm would be a fitting tribute to the memory of Tyre Nichols.
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