America is enduring dark times these days.
Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate and a state governor, calls for civil war and praises the jury-convicted insurrectionists with the racists paramilitary groups, the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, as “good guys.”
This past July, a 14-year-old white boy in Chatham, Massachusetts, tried to drown a black youth, referring to him with a racial slur while a white companion kept calling the black youth “George Floyd.” A grand jury recently indicted the white 14-year-old for attempted murder.
Right-wing racist assertions and actions by elected officials and leaders have a trickle-down impact on our society, especially law enforcement. Some people with badges join law enforcement with inherited racial and cultural biases. They see law enforcement not as a duty to protect and serve all of society but as an opportunity to target specific races and ethnic groups with harassment and fabricated criminal charges.
They, in effect, become a Sarah Palin with a badge who want to “George Floyd” innocent people or low-level wrongdoers at every opportunity.
That is what happened to Philando Castile in July 2016 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area community of St. Anthony. He was fatally shot during a traffic stop by a St. Anthony police officer named Jeronimo Yanez. His girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter were in the vehicle when Yanez fired seven bullets at Castile, hitting him five times. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later at a local medical center.
The pretext for the traffic stop was, according to what Yanez broadcast over the police radio system: “The two occupants [in the vehicle] look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose.”
State officials subsequently charged Yanez with second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. Following a five-day trial that began on May 30, 2017, a jury acquitted him on all charges. The St. Anthony police department terminated Yanez’s employment, paying $48,500 as part of a termination agreement.
The traffic stop that killed Castile was the 46th time he had been stopped by local police, a clear, virtually indisputable indication that Black men were victims of racially profiled pretextual traffic stops in the Minneapolis metropolitan area. Nearly four years later, George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department after he reportedly tried to pay for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20. The whole world watched as one officer used his knees over a 9-minute period to suffocate the life out of Floyd while other officers helped hold him down.
In Texas, a pretext stop led to disaster after Sandra Bland was pulled over on pretext stop and aggressively assaulted verbally and physically by a rogue cop. “Sandra’s untimely death spurred examinations into the racial breakdowns of pretextual traffic stops. “Driving while Black” was a trending topic as people discussed the overly aggressive stance taken by law enforcement when encountering Black motorists.”
The nation’s plethora of traffic laws give police license to stop any motorist pedestrian for little or no reason at all, such as hanging an air freshener from a rearview mirror or obscured license plate. If an officer has a hunch that a person looks suspicious, they can follow the vehicle, waiting for any minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop the vehicle.
As long as there is a violation, the officer can stop and detain the motorist without violating the Fourth Amendment, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If police want to initiate a traffic stop, they need a factual basis to believe a traffic violation was committed. Although the Supreme Court has held that police can stop a driver for a traffic violation to investigate a different offense—a pretextual traffic stop—an officer must have a basis to believe a traffic violation was committed in the first place. The Fourth Amendment bars police from stopping whoever they want, whenever they want. And if police want to extend traffic stops to investigate other crimes, they need an objectively good reason to think a crime was committed.”
Max Carter-Oberstone, puts it succinctly, “[so], what’s wrong with pretextual stops? For starters, they don’t make us safer. Rigorous studies have shown that pretext stops turn up evidence of non-traffic crimes at abysmally low rates, and that they have no effect on crime rates. These same studies confirm that when we invite officers to be led by their gut instincts and other unchecked heuristics, it is people of color who are disproportionately affected. Racial disparities in who gets pulled over erode trust in the police, and deepen the perception that police use race as a proxy for criminality.”
Here is how a rogue pretextual stop can work in Texas.
Last year, Alek Schott was driving his truck home from a work trip in Bexar County. He was driving on I-35 when he was stopped by a Bexar County sheriff’s deputy for drifting between lanes. The alleged traffic offense certainly did not warrant the deputy questioning Schott for ten minutes before calling for a drug dog to be brought to the scene. The dog supposedly “alerted” on Schott’s truck, prompting the deputy and others who had arrived on the scene to tear his truck apart in a search. The search revealed nothing.
Video footage from Schott’s dashcam showed he had not drifted between lanes, and footage from the deputy’s bodycam showed that Schott interacted with the deputy during interrogation calmly and respectfully—nothing about his behavior or demeanor indicated criminal activity. Nonetheless, the deputy called for the drug dog.
Worse yet, the deputy’s own bodycam revealed that moments before the dog alerted, the deputy gave the dog a signal to alert.
Schott, with the assistance of the Institute for Justice, is now suing the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department for violating his Fourth Amendment protections.
There are more than 20 million traffic stops on the nation’s highways each year. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of these stops, are pretextual—most often motivated by an officer’s gut instincts, as in the Bexar County case, and they more often than not focus on people of color, as in the Philando Castile case. These pretextual stops result in low discovery rates of criminal activity.
In the months after George Floyd’s murder, Virginia lawmakers decided to initiate policing reforms that banned racial profiling and pretextual traffic stops based on broken taillights, tinted windows, and the aroma of marijuana. Data shows that the number of black motorists searched for drugs has decreased significantly.
Law enforcement, of course, does not like these kinds of reforms. They contend that the curtailment of pretextual stops reduces their interactions with criminals and that they do not target race but traffic violations.
But these arguments are intellectually dishonest and miss the mark.
The anger, bitterness, and distrust caused by the overwhelming number of false positives in pretextual stops does more harm to legitimate crime prevention than the fleeting benefit of the few crimes detected by such interactions.
Effective law enforcement begins and ends with the people’s trust in the communities they serve. That will never be achieved through pretextual policing. Building trusting relationships and working together, not racial profiling and vitriolic rhetoric, is the path to workable solutions for reducing crime and building respectful relationships with police and the communities they were sworn to serve and protect.