Over the last three decades, Jay Pearson, a professor of public policy at Duke University, has endured more than 65 traffic stops.
The stops resulted in four tickets total, and he successfully contested two of them. Pearson, 55, is Black.
“The take home for me,” Pearson said, is the “stress response that it elicits and what it does to me deep down inside.”
When he was younger, he would feel “distressed” for weeks, or even months, after he interacted with the police. Nightmares haunted him.
In the last decade, Pearson said, his distress has morphed into “passionate concern for what young men experience and the fact that, try as I might, there is little I can do to help prevent it.”
The killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police in January has again cast light on the often-tense interactions between officers and Black motorists during traffic stops.
But perhaps the most important number is this: Last year, police killed 86 people nationwide after a traffic stop violation.
Most traffic stops end without incident, but as public scrutiny over police misconduct has mushroomed in recent years, they’ve taken on outsize significance because so many have ended in much-publicized controversial deaths.
Among them: In 2015, a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., shot a fleeing Walter Scott in the back. The next year, a suburban Minneapolis officer shot and killed Philando Castile. Last April, it was Patrick Lyoya, shot in the head by an officer in Grand Rapids, Mich. And last June, in Akron, Ohio, it was 25-year-old Jayland Walker. Protests erupted after each killing.
(Overall, police killed 1,194 people in the U.S. last year, the highest total in the past decade.)
To pull over a driver, in most cases, a police officer must have “reasonable suspicion” that someone has committed a crime or violated the law. That violation may include anything from a busted taillight to a driver failing to signal before changing lanes.
“[Traffic stops] provide the legal justification for a conversation and a mini investigation for any member of the public that the police wants to interview,” said Frank Baumgartner, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Suspect Citizen. “They’re too tempting because everybody’s breaking the traffic code….It’s like God’s gift to the police, you know, the traffic code.”
To search a vehicle, an officer needs probable cause. An officer might suspect the driver possesses contraband or drugs, or has a stolen vehicle. Most jurisdictions require verbal assent, but in 2014, Durham introduced a written consent form for vehicle searches. From 2014-2020, searches decreased by 95 percent, Baumgartner wrote in Suspect Citizen. According to the Durham Police Department General Orders Manual, officers can search property with probable cause and in “exigent circumstances.”
Black people make up over 60% of traffic stops conducted by the Durham Police Department each year, recent state data showed. From April 2022 to December, 81 percent of people stopped by Durham’s new Crime Area Target Team (CATT) were Black men, although Durham’s population is about 37 percent Black. Roughly 80 percent of CATT’s stops were for vehicular and equipment violations, although the unit was created to curb violent crime.
Research from New York University and Stanford show that in the U.S., Black drivers “were about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population” and were searched “1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers.”
The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection of all citizens under the law, and the Fourth Amendment promises protection from searches and seizures deemed “unreasonable.”
In other words, the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned with the “subjective motivations” of government actors, while the Fourth Amendment relies on facts and circumstances that lead officers to believe they should conduct searches, according to Ian Mance, a civil rights attorney at Emancipate NC, a non-profit that focuses on structural racism and mass incarceration.
“Lawyers sort of live in the gray area in between (the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments),” Mance said.
In Whren v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1996 that if a driver committed a traffic violation but the officer stopped them due to other suspicions unrelated to the traffic violation, the search is still reasonable and legal under the Fourth Amendment.
For example, if an individual is driving one mile over the speed limit, the officer would have “probable cause” to stop them even if racial profiling is at play, Mance said.
In his book, Suspect Citizens, Baumgartner found that from 2002 to 2020, 3 percent of traffic stops led to a search, 30 percent turned up contraband, and officers arrested someone only half the times they found contraband.
“Most of the people you’re going to be pulling over and searching haven’t done anything or aren’t doing anything that endangers the community,” Mance said. “But very often, they’re going to come away from that encounter with negative feelings about the experience, and they’re going to feel more alienated from the city and the police department.”
Mance also said communities might be less inclined to cooperate with officers in more serious cases, like shootings. When police saturate neighborhoods with patrol cars and constant small violations, they create a “community alienation effect,” he said.
In 2014, Pearson had just pulled out of the driveway of his Durham home and onto a main road when an officer stopped him as he was about to put on his seatbelt. The officer yelled at Pearson, who pointed out that he was about to fasten his seatbelt. The officer insinuated that Pearson only fastened it upon noticing the police car, and continued to shout. He gave Pearson a ticket.
Pearson, who also serves as associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said the warnings (known as The Talk) that parents or mentors give to young Black men about the potential dangers of traffic stops may be helpful. But The Talk does not address the forces that enable stops to occur at high and disproportionate rates, he says. Also upsetting to Pearson is that he has seen few meaningful reforms.
On July 4th, 2021, at around 6:30 pm, retired police officer Bruce W. Parker was riding his motorcycle in Edgecombe County, on his way to a family reunion. Parker had promised he’d stop by the celebration on his way back home to Durham, especially because his sister’s husband had recently died and his brother was terminally ill. In a rush to keep his promise, Parker, who is Black, broke the speed limit.
An officer from neighboring Halifax County pulled him over and scolded him for not stopping earlier, Parker said. The officer said he had been chasing Parker for four miles, but Parker told him he hadn’t noticed. The officer accused Parker of driving 57 mph in a 35 mph zone and failing to stop at the police officer’s siren. Parker said he was going around 45 mph.
The officer commanded Parker to raise his hands and turn around so that he could pat him down. He then handcuffed Parker.
He “made an assumption that I was some kind of thug person,” Parker said.
Parker said that instead of asking for his consent, the officer demanded the keys to the motorcycle. He found the compartment with both Parker’s weapon and his police ID. As a retired officer, he has a legal right to carry a gun.
The ticket was later dismissed, but Parker filed a complaint to the Halifax Police Department. He said nothing came of it.
Some cities are considering ways to minimize unnecessary traffic stops.Cities have become a testing ground for various policy changes around policing. Los Angeles and Philadelphia, for example, have implemented policies that prevent officers from stopping people for minor violations.
Another way to minimize violence and aggression at traffic stops is to detangle traffic stop enforcement from law enforcement, Baumgartner said. Unarmed traffic monitors would look similar to parking enforcement, and would not have the right to search and conduct criminal investigations.
“It’s just hard to write a policy that sort of anticipates all the different types of situations that officers might get themselves into that might lead to an escalated situation where someone gets seriously injured or killed,” Mance said. “If your goal is to reduce the likelihood without impacting public safety in a negative way, we should think about ways we can reduce the number of low-level interactions.”