Why do so many police traffic stops in US turn deadly?

2023-02-01 21:47:17
Why do so many police traffic stops in US turn deadly?

Tyre Nichols is one of dozens of drivers in the US to have died in recent years after being pulled over by police. Why do traffic stops become violent and what can be done about it?

The death of Mr Nichols in Memphis has highlighted how one of the most common interactions the US public has with police - the traffic stop - can turn deadly, the BBC said in a report.

Last year, at least 86 people were killed by police in interactions that began as traffic stops. In 2021 it was 117, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.

That figure includes people of all races but experts say that black Americans are disproportionately stopped by officers in cities across the country.

As the US has examined the role of policing over the last few years, concerns over traffic stops - following high-profile deaths including those of Philando Castile in July 2017, Patrick Lyoya in April and now Mr Nichols - have prompted some jurisdictions to announce reforms.

By training police how to de-escalate interactions with drivers and eliminating incentives to pull them over, some departments are reporting success in reducing the number of "flashpoints" of heightened tensions that can lead to violence.

So what do the numbers tell us?

Since 2017, more than 800 people have been killed after being pulled over in the US, according to statistics from the Mapping Police Violence database.

Last year, traffic stops led to roughly 7% of all police killings nationwide.

Larry James, general counsel of the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the BBC that the dangers of a stop - when an officer doesn't know who, or what, is in a vehicle - mean they must exercise caution.

"There have been situations where officers have been shot, just flat out killed or seriously injured, in traffic stops. That's the bottom line. So they're extremely cautious," he said.

Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a law professor and co-director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said that a lot of police training for traffic stops is "antiquated".

"[Officers] are trained, basically, that a traffic stop is the most dangerous thing an officer might engage in on any particular day," she said.

Traffic stops, Ms Bell Hardaway explained, also pose a danger to those being pulled over, with statistics showing that civilians are more likely than law enforcement officers to die in traffic stops.

"As dangerous as police officers are taught it is for them, we know that civilians are killed at a far greater rate by police officers than in reverse," she said.

Police departments also give officers incentives to pull people over, seeing traffic stops as a way to fill city coffers or using them as a metric for officers to be evaluated.

Jennifer Hicks, a former Utah police officer, recalled that in the departments in which she worked, individual traffic stop statistics were put up on a board for all to see, with officers rewarded for giving out tickets.

"I remember that very clearly, as I was always at the bottom, because I hated giving out tickets," she said.

"It was always pointed out in front of everyone that I had the lowest citation numbers."


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