End Needless Interactions With Police Officers During Traffic Stops

A broken taillight does not require armed agents of the state to approach a motorist’s window.

Eric Miller / Reuters

On Wednesday, a Minnesota police officer shot and killed a school cafeteria manager during a traffic stop for a broken taillight. As Philando Castile, 32, bled in his vehicle, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast the aftermath on Facebook Live. She said that her boyfriend was reaching for his I.D. at the police officer’s instruction when he was shot, having already declared that he was legally carrying a firearm. The policeman said, “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his hands up.”

A young child was also in the vehicle during the shooting.

Because the shooting itself was not captured on video, the whole truth may not out. The public may never know if a panicked Philando Castile moved in a way that would alarm a reasonable police officer, or if the police officer was negligent, or incompetent, or malignant, or if both of them erred in small ways that added up to tragedy.

But regardless of who was at fault, the whole incident—the death of the 32-year-old, the trauma to his girlfriend, the danger posed to the child, and any danger or undeserved suffering by the cop—could’ve been avoided but for a needless interaction. There is no need for a cop to approach a motorist’s window over a broken taillight.

I am not saying that all broken taillights should be ignored.

What I’m suggesting is a change in protocol: A police officer who sees a car with a broken taillight, or a malfunctioning blinker, should pull it over, park behind it, photograph the license plate, and issue a “fix it” ticket to the registered owner of the vehicle without ever approaching a window or interacting with anyone on the roadside.

Some traffic stops are unavoidable. Police officers need to interact with drunk-driving suspects to determine their blood alcohol level. They need to interact with a person driving a car reported stolen to recover the property and arrest the thief. But broken taillights and similar matters can be addressed without any human contact. And minimizing interactions between police and motorists is a good thing.

On the roadside, approaching people sitting in their own car, many cops fear for their safety. In their vehicles, many motorists, particularly black and Hispanic motorists, fear that they’re going to be met with a racist or panicked police officer. These interactions are hugely stressful for both sides even when they end without incident. And rarely, but far too often, these roadside stops end in needless injury or death.

To what end?

So that cops making a stop for a broken taillight can occasionally discover an outstanding warrant or an expired registration or narcotics in a vehicle? The benefits of these incidental discoveries are not worth the costs, in stress and incidents gone wrong, especially when one adds opportunity costs to the calculus: The more time police officers spend on roadside stops for “fix-it” tickets, the less time they’re engaged in patrolling, investigating, or responding to more serious crimes.

Vehicle code stops also serve, in many jurisdictions, to enable policing that disproportionately burdens the marginalized, both because the discretion associated with such stops can enable racial profiling and because poor people are most likely to have older vehicles in need of minor repairs that they can’t afford to make.

Writing in The New York Times, Sendhil Mullainathan relates what he found after completing a statistical analysis of police killings: “that eliminating the biases of all police officers would do little to materially reduce the total number of African-American killings.”

He explains:

The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.

Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.

Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.

Knowing that traffic stops are particularly anxiety-inducing for cops and motorists alike, that a tiny number of people try to harm cops during traffic stops, that far more people panic when stopped by police, behaving in ways that it is easy to misinterpret as threatening, and that some police officers are frightened and incompetent, minimizing the most needless stops seems like a long overdue reform.

It almost certainly would have saved Philando Castile’s life.