Blacks are more likely to be stopped for the kind of minor violation that led to Philando Castile’s death.
DALLAS—Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Samuel DuBose. Philando Castile.
A list of black people who ended up dead after they were confronted by the police.
It’s also something more specific: a list of black people who ended up dead after they were stopped for a petty traffic violation.
A broken tail light. A missing front plate. A failure to signal a lane change. All minor offences. All deeply familiar, to millions of black Americans, as the kinds of pretexts officers use to justify racial profiling.
Every controversial police killing generates an emotional reaction in the black community. Part of the reason Castile’s death last week has sparked an even deeper outcry is that the so-called “routine traffic stop,” and the routine traffic stop that turns into an interrogation or inspection or detention or display of condescension, is such a common part of the black experience.
This is the type of stop that gave rise to the rueful phrase “driving while black.” The bias is not in the community’s imagination: Research suggests black people are subjected to the stops far more frequently, are treated much differently in the process, and resent the police in large part because of them.
“It’s that police practice that really, in a very palpable, concrete, ongoing way, shapes the colour line in American society,” said Charles Epp, a University of Kansas professor and co-author of the book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship.
Canada, of course, has its own past and present profiling issues; Toronto’s police force has been accused of racial profiling in traffic stops. And black people in Toronto and the United States are more likely to be stopped and questioned whether or not they are in a vehicle.
But for most Americans, black or white, the traffic stop is the most frequent kind of police encounter. In interviews, black Americans in five states said the killing of Castile had left them anguished, rattled and newly concerned for their own safety.
“I’ve been leery about police and African-American young people for years,” said Baruti Kafele, 55, a prominent New Jersey educator, “but in terms of me as an adult man, and just the way I conduct myself, I haven’t had that fear. I thought I’m above that, I’m OK. But now it’s like: maybe not.”
Khloe Swanson, 20, a university student in Los Angeles, said Castile’s death made her reconsider an incident last year in which she was pulled over on affluent Martha’s Vineyard driving the same speed as a white person in front of her. She panicked, having never been in trouble before, and left her car to apologize to the officer, who scolded her.
“That could have ended so, so, so, differently,” Swanson said. “He could have easily pulled his gun on me, or threw me onto his car and arrested me. I have never thought about this until now, but I am extremely lucky, and now all I can wonder is what separated me from the rest of those who have been killed.”
Castile had been stopped 52 times in 14 years. Half his charges were dismissed. None of his convictions were for dangerous offences.
When Epp and his colleagues studied traffic stops in the Kansas City region, they found no difference in the frequency with which black and white drivers were stopped for serious violations like speeding. And they found no difference in how blacks and whites were treated during those stops.
The racial bias was in the other stops — the minor kind that led to Castile’s death. They’re the ones where officers pull people over citing a minor issue, then start asking unrelated questions.
In her video from the scene, Castile’s girlfriend said they had been pulled over for a broken tail light. In fact, according to audio obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, an officer said he was going to pull Castile “just because of the wide-set nose” he thought made him look like a robbery suspect.
Epp found that black drivers were three times more likely than whites to experience these kinds of “investigatory” or “pretextual” stops. They were five times more likely to be searched during them.
White people usually have to deal with the serious kind of stop and usually come away thinking the police were fair, Epp said. The familiarity of black people with the minor kind of stop, he said, shapes their perceptions of not only the police but their relationship with government more broadly.
Damien Turknett, 37, is a manager at a product distribution centre in Houston. When he was 21, he was pulled over for a minor violation he said he can’t recall. The officer, a black man, drew his gun while approaching the car.
When Turknett angrily asked him why, he said, the officer threw him against the car, sprayed him with mace, jailed him, and charged him with resisting arrest. While he got the charges resolved without a blemish on his record, the confrontation left a mark on his psyche.
“My attitude is, I don’t know what to expect from a police officer every time I get pulled over,” he said. “Is this guy going to harass me for no reason? Is this guy going to harass me and search my car for something that I don’t have? That’s why my hands are always visible.”
Pretextual stops aren’t going away. The Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that any minor traffic violation is a legitimate justification for a stop, even if the real reason is some other crime-fighting objective. It is little understood, Epp said, that investigatory stops are not the sole product of officers’ racism: Many cops are trained to conduct them by chiefs who consider them an essential tactic.
So black Americans will continue to reluctantly plan for stops in advance, trying to come up with strategies to emerge from “routine” interactions unscathed.
Shaun Marq Anderson, 33, a California professor of organizational communication, said his instinct is to question everything around him. But he is getting married soon, and he wants children. So he has decided to quiet himself even if he’s pulled over unfairly.
“I will defer to protecting my family moreso than trying to win an argument,” he said. “I can take the day off and still live rather than be prideful and win and potentially lose my life.”