Commentary

Retired police officer writes: Stop the car stops | Opinion

May 17, 2021 6:00 am

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Police know that to be effective at our jobs, we require the trust of the community. We also know that community trust is fragile and can be lost quickly when an officer shoots a civilian. 

One common source of these shootings is police pulling over a driver for a minor violation as a pretext to search their car, looking for evidence of other crimes that would usually require a search warrant. In fact, these so-called pretextual stops do little to protect public safety. They damage police-community relations, waste police resources and put the lives of motorists and officers at risk. But there is a solution: States can follow Virginia’s lead and ban pretextual stops to protect public trust and safety.

As a leader of the crisis negotiation team for my police department, I was keenly aware of how our community felt about officers. In each crisis, our success relied on gaining the trust of the people involved. Across policing, research underscores that having trust from the people we serve directly impacts public safety, because without trust, people do not report crime or cooperate with law enforcement.

This trust we rely upon is quickly destroyed by tragic and unnecessary officer-involved shootings. When people see viral video recordings of people being mistreated or harmed by police, they are shocked, angry and distrustful of us. Their reactions are especially strong when an officer kills someone during a needless interaction.

One key source of officer-involved shootings is pretextual stops. Officers often stop drivers not because someone is driving unsafely but to randomly search their car. We cannot pull you over and search your car without probable cause, but we can use a very minor infraction as a pretext to stop your car, look inside while asking questions to try to find probable cause for a search and ask for your consent to search the vehicle. 

Because traffic laws are written so broadly — it’s illegal to hang an air freshener from the rearview mirror or to fail to use a turn signal — an officer can pull over virtually anyone, at any time. Two of the most prominent examples of a pretextual-stop-turned fatal occurred in Minnesota: Daunte Wright and Philando Castile. For Wright in 2021, the stated reason for pulling him over was expired registration tags. For Castile in 2016, the reason was an alleged broken taillight.

These stops divert substantial public safety resources without making us safer. In the overwhelming majority of pretextual stops, no guns, drugs, or even lower-priority offenses are found. Studies show that these stops have little-to-no effect on crime rates. The time spent making low-level traffic stops would be much better spent investigating actual crimes and working with residents to address their safety concerns.

Pretextual stops create the risk of injury and death not just for motorists but also for law enforcement officers. When officers walk up to a stopped car, we hold our breath just waiting for a gun to come out. We don’t know if drivers will suddenly hit the gas pedal, endangering us, bystanders or other motorists. While these situations are rare, we are trained to expect the worst-case-scenario and approach every stop in a state of hypervigilance, which contributes to the escalation of minor infractions into violence.

These stops also create more distrust between Black communities and law enforcement. Study after study has found that Black motorists are far more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers, but are actually less likely to be found in possession of weapons or drugs.

Racial disparities are highest for low-level traffic and equipment stops because officers are choosing targets based on our own biased hunches rather than on the driver’s actions. A study by Stanford University found that Black motorists are less likely to be pulled over at night when their skin color is obscured. For Black drivers, the vast majority of whom are innocent of any serious wrongdoing, these stops are frightening and humiliating. They know that they have been racially profiled, and it poisons the well of police-community trust that I worked so hard to protect.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Virginia passed a law last year that prohibits officers from making stops solely to enforce certain low-level equipment violations. Officers could still enforce these violations, but only if they make the stop for a more serious reason. The rest of our nation should follow suit and end the practice of pretextual stops.

We can also end the practice of consent searches. When officers pull people over on a pretextual stop, but they do not hear or see anything that creates probable cause for a search, they will try to get the person to agree to a search of the vehicle. The vast majority of consent searches are fishing expeditions that find nothing, waste resources and burn trust. In 2016, The Case Western Reserve Law Review published a report on pretextual stops which argues that consent in these situations is often illusory due to the power imbalance. Motorists — especially motorists of color — generally fear that if they do not consent to the officer’s request, they will anger the officer and be searched anyway or risk endangering their safety. Consent searches have been banned or curtailed in several states.

I wish as a young officer on patrol I had known what I know now: That pretextual stops don’t protect public safety, they just divert public safety resources, keep people of color from trusting the police, and risk injury and death for motorists and officers alike. It is time for Minnesota to pass legislation that eliminates these counterproductive stops and improves law enforcement’s ability to keep us all safe.

Daunte Wright was not the first Black man killed by Minnesota law enforcement during a traffic stop for a minor vehicle infraction, and unless we change the law, he won’t be the last.

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Diane Goldstein
Diane Goldstein

Lieutenant Diane Goldstein retired from the Redondo Beach Police Department in California. She is the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

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