Why traffic stops can be so dangerous for Black Americans like Tyre Nichols

A huddled group of mostly Black faces, some partially hidden by hats and scarves, are lit by candlelight. The Black woman at the center of the photo holds a candle near her face, which seems drawn with grief. The expressions on the faces surrounding her, seen dimly though the gloom, match hers.
People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Nichols died from a brutal beating that followed a traffic stop.

Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died earlier this month after he was pulled over by Memphis police, who violently beat him for three minutes, an incident shown in footage that was released Friday.

Lawyers for the Nichols family said in a press conference Monday that Nichols had been treated like a “human piñata.” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a video statement Thursday that the attack was “heinous, reckless, and inhumane.” The Memphis Police Department and other law enforcement agencies across the country are consequently anticipating civil unrest following the release of the footage.

Five Black officers for the Memphis Police Department — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith — were fired after an internal departmental investigation found them to be “directly responsible” for the beating. They also were found to have violated departmental policies regarding excessive force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced Thursday that each would face charges of “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, two charges of aggravated kidnapping, two charges of official misconduct and one charge of official oppression.” They could face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charges alone.

Additionally, two Memphis Fire Department workers who were involved in Nichols’s initial care have been “relieved of duty,” according to the department. It’s not clear whether they could also face charges.

Police stopped Nichols for reckless driving on January 7. Memphis’s police chief later told CNN that investigators have “been unable to substantiate” the claim that Nichols was driving recklessly, however. Nichols expressed confusion for the stop, saying in the footage that he was “just trying to go home.”

The officers who initially stopped him responded by threatening to “knock your ass the fuck out,” and to break his bones. Nichols fled from the stop; once he was caught, those threats were carried out. Officers encircled Nichols, and repeatedly punched, kicked, and hit him with a baton — sometimes while he was restrained on the ground.

He was taken to a hospital after his arrest when he complained of shortness of breath. Three days later, he died due to his injuries.

It’s not the first time that police have turned a traffic stop into a deadly altercation. Deaths like Nichols’s are all too common, especially for Black Americans, who nearly every available study shows are stopped more often than white Americans.

Why traffics stops can be dangerous for Black Americans

Black Americans are often taught — at home, through personal experience, and by the news — to see encounters with police, particularly traffic stops, as dangerous, if not potentially fatal.

The deaths of Americans like Nichols, or Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, and Rayshard Brooks, validate that teaching. But it’s not just Black civilians who learn to fear traffic stops. As University of Arizona law professor Jordan Blair Woods wrote for the Michigan Law Review, police are taught to view stops as dangerous as well — not for those they’re stopping, but for themselves and their colleagues.

“Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” Woods wrote.

That training belies the fact that police officers are rarely injured in traffic stops. In Woods’s analysis of Florida traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014, the professor finds police had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured. Overall, more than 98 percent of stops saw zero or minor injury to officers.

Data in other states mirrors Woods’s findings. In their book Suspect Citizens, UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner, University of Texas government professor Derek A. Epp, and University of South Carolina political science professor Kelsey Shoub found that North Carolina “officers encountered violence about 24,000 times, or just over once per 1,000 stops.” When someone was injured at a stop, it was usually the person being stopped, the authors found.

And when wounded, like Nichols was, citizens’ chances of surviving a routine stop with police are less than stellar. A 2019 study by Shea Streeter, currently an American politics professor at the University of Michigan, found that in 2015, about 11 percent of police killings happened at traffic and pedestrian stops nationwide.

Complicating matters for Black individuals is that the data suggests they’re stopped more often than white people — in some localities, by a large margin. The Stanford Open Policing Project, a database of more than 200 million traffic stops, found that in St. Paul, Black drivers are a little over three times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over; in San Jose, California, Black drivers are six times more likely to be stopped.

Arguably, drivers of all races ought to be stopped at about the same rate — anyone of any race or gender could engage in the reckless driving Nichols was allegedly stopped for. This has led to a number of researchers trying to understand the disparity in who is stopped. In general, their results suggest that the issue has to do with officer bias, conscious or unconscious, that casts Black people as inherently more dangerous than their white counterparts.

Tied to this idea is the question of what stops are for. As a group of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College researchers led by Baumgartner wrote in a 2017 paper, in many departments, traffic stops are meant to serve a dual purpose: to deter illegal behavior and as a chance for officers to investigative past or potential crimes. In many ways, this system is akin to stop-and-frisk, a practice most prominently used in New York City that was meant to uncover criminal behavior through street searches. The program was ruled unconstitutional.

As Baumgartner wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking. When officers are serving these broader goals, they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.”

It’s impossible to know — at least with the information currently available — whether the officers who stopped Nichols did so because they found him suspicious. It is known, however, that they were part of Memphis’s SCORPION Unit, with the name being an acronym meaning “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.” That restoration of peace heavily involved traffic stops, according to NBC News.

If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem. When a Black driver is stopped, the interaction is more likely to begin with the officer even more on guard for trouble than they might otherwise be.

This can lead to the kind of rapid escalation seen in Nichols’s case, in which officers ended the stop through violence. Some officers favor beginning with violence, perhaps out of fear, like during the encounter that ended George Floyd’s life. Body camera footage released during Derek Chauvin’s trial, for example, shows an officer drawing his weapon shortly after approaching Floyd’s vehicle and yelling at him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.”

These tactics, as well as the fear and bias that fuel them, put Black drivers in mortal danger. Law enforcement representatives have argued the stops are necessary — “we find drugs, evidence of other crimes … it’s a very valuable tool,” Kevin Lawrence, the Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive director, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2020 — but those discoveries are rare. Nationally, about 4 percent of stops resulted in searches or arrests in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This has a number of activists and elected officials questioning whether the risks traffic stops pose to drivers — particularly Black drivers — are worth such a small number of arrests.

Berkeley, California, for instance, approved a plan in 2021 to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety; Oakland has a similar policy in place. Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have contemplated such measures as well. Washington, DC, stripped its police department of some of its authority to regulate traffic laws in 2019, empowering its transportation department to do enforcement instead. New York’s attorney general has recommended New York City make a similar change, and in 2022, New York City police announced they’d no longer use stops to randomly check for open warrants.

The long-term effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. But they represent a small step away from the kind of policing that left Nichols, and so many before him, dead.

Update, January 27, 7:40 pm: This story has been updated to reflect the release of footage capturing Nichols’s beating and arrest.

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