A multitude of studies that have been conducted on the frequency of police traffic stops as related to the drivers’ race, such as this 2020 study conducted at New York University, all reveal the same trend: Black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. On the surface, this may seem like a fairly harmless discrepancy but when combined with the rising awareness of police brutality issues over the last several years, this statistic should come as both shocking and horrifying. A New York Times study looked at traffic stops across the United States that occurred between 2015 and 2020 and found that police officers had killed more than 400 drivers or passengers during these interactions. Seemingly routine and innocuous traffic stops resulted in death more than once a week for five years. The Black Lives Matter movement and other community attempts to highlight issues in policing point to this racial bias as a huge cause for concern. A routine traffic stop can turn into a hostile and dangerous interaction for drivers and passengers, mainly Black people and other people of color, very quickly if the officer allows prejudice and racist views to guide his/her actions. We have seen time and time again after these tragedies occur the officer uses the fear of threat to justify their deadly force, but this begs the question: how does being pulled over for a broken taillight lead to a deadly run-in with the police?
What is Pretextual Policing?
These tragedies stem from a larger phenomenon known as “pretextual policing”. This is the practice of police pulling over a driver for a minor traffic violation but using this as an opportunity to conduct extraneous investigations (Justice Forward Virginia, 2021). An officer having suspicion about the driver or the contents of the car can use the traffic stop as an excuse to investigate the person further, leading to altercations, the recovery of evidence, or just the chance to search a person the officer doesn’t trust. It comes as no surprise Black people and people of color are disproportionately labeled suspicious by police thanks to centuries of racial stereotypes and prejudice. Pretextual traffic stops are just one example of how racial bias is present in policing and leads to deaths at the hands of police. Racial profiling leads to a disproportionate number of people of color being pulled over for minor infractions.
What can be done to combat this?
In March of 2021, the state of Virginia passed into law a ban aimed at these pretextual traffic stops. The bills (HB 5058 and SB 5029) prohibit police officers from pulling drivers over for common traffic violations such as broken tail/brake lights, having objects hung from the rearview mirror, and having tinted windows. Additionally, any incriminating evidence retrieved from one of these illegal stops would be inadmissible in court (ACLU VA). Before this law was enacted, and in the 49 other states in this country, police officers could pull anyone over for these infractions and demand the ability to search them if they were deemed “suspicious”. While the effectiveness and enforcement of this law still rely heavily on the ability of a judge to be impartial and not influenced by racial bias, this step by Virginia shows a real attempt to address police brutality by identifying a major site where interactions between police and people of color occur: On the side of the road in your own car.
Bennett, J. (2020, May 5). Research Shows Black Drivers More Likely to Be Stopped by Police. NYU. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2020/may/black-drivers-more-likely-to-be-stopped-by-police.html
Hope, P. A. (n.d.). LIS > Bill Tracking > HB5058 > 2020 session. Legislative Information System. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?202+sum+HB5058
Know Your Rights: Stopped by Law Enforcement. (n.d.). ACLU of Virginia. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://acluva.org/en/know-your-rights/police
Lucas, L. (n.d.). LIS > Bill Tracking > SB5029 > 2020 session. Legislative Information System. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?ses=202&typ=bil&val=sb5029
Pretextual Policing — Justice Forward Virginia. (n.d.). Justice Forward Virginia. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from https://justiceforwardva.com/pretextual-policing
Tate, J. (2021, November 30). Why Many Police Traffic Stops Turn Deadly. The New York Times. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/31/us/police-traffic-stops-killings.html