Daunte Wright Shooting a Reminder That It’s Not Cops Who Should Fear for Their Lives During Traffic Stops

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The truth about traffic stops and violence. The fatal shooting of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop by a police officer and union boss who supposedly can’t tell her taser from her gun spawned a rash of demonstrations against police brutality in which protesters were met with more police brutality. It’s also opened yet another discussion about U.S. policing—why do we need armed authorities to enforce traffic violations anyway?—and how overcriminalization leads to tragedy. Stupid laws spawn enforcement of stupid laws by trigger-happy cops who have been primed to see much of the American populace as threats to control, rather than people they’re supposed to “serve and protect.”

One commonly-offered defense in cases of cops murdering people during routine traffic stops is that such stops can be incredibly dangerous for police officers. State authorities and their bootlickers try hard to convince us that police fear and subsequent overreaction during traffic stops is only rational in the face of the extreme danger such stops place them in. Traffic stops very frequently end badly for police, they say.

But it’s actually not true that traffic stops are a major source of serious violence against police officers. A paper published in the Michigan Law Review in 2019 (“Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops“) found the likelihood of an officer being killed during a routine traffic stop was one in 6.5 million. 

“It’s drilled into police that traffic stop ambushes are routine. They aren’t,” points out Radley Balko of The Washington Post on Twitter. “They happen, but they’re vanishingly rare. And the federal courts’ view that stops are inherently dangerous is based on an unscientific survey from 1964.”

Serious injury to a police officer is estimated to happen in one out of every 361,111 stops, and the estimate for “the rate for an assault against officers (whether it results in injury or not) was only 1 in every 6,959 stops,” writes University of Arkansas Professor Jordan Blair Woods, the author of the Michigan Law Review paper.

For the study, Woods reviewed data of “thousands of traffic stops that resulted in violence against officers across more than 200 law enforcement agencies in Florida over a 10-year period.” He also developed a typology of violence warning signs:

The typology indicates that a narrow set of observable contextual factors precedes most of this violence—most commonly, signs of flight or intoxication. The typology further reveals important qualitative differences regarding violence during traffic stops initiated for only traffic enforcement versus criminal enforcement.

The study has significant implications for law enforcement agencies and courts. The findings and typology have the potential to inform police training and prompt questions about whether greater invocation of police authority during routine stops for traffic violations undermines, rather than advances, both officer and civilian safety. The findings also lay an early empirical foundation for rethinking fundamental assumptions about officer safety and routine traffic stops in Fourth Amendment doctrine.

In any event, the fact that stops over minor motor vehicle infractions do sometimes lead to violence—against police officers and the people they pull over—presents yet another reason to resist putting police and drivers in direct contact over non-risky matters like expired licenses, a broken taillight, or an illegally hung air freshener.

If folks insist on criminalizing or fining drivers for some such infractions still, that could be taken care of with photographs and paper notices, as many speeding tickets are. This would put both cops and drivers in less danger. That we don’t operate this way shows how much authorities rely on routine—and often pretextual—traffic stops as a way to search for drugs or find other reasons to harass and arrest people they don’t like the looks of.


FREE MARKETS

Why do federal health officials show such disdain for lifesaving drugs? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) want the U.S. to stop giving out the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine because out of the 7 million doses given so far, six people developed a blood clotting disorder.

“While the move was framed as a recommendation to health practitioners in the states, the federal government is expected to pause administration of the vaccine at all federally run vaccination sites,” reports The New York Times. “Federal officials expect that state health officials will take that as a strong signal to do the same.”


FREE MINDS

Meet Jane Coaston. The Washington Post profiles podcast host and always-interesting libertarian thinker and writer Jane Coaston:

Jane Coaston hates the phrase “the Black community.” The 33-year-old journalist always jokes about her next “Black community meeting,” mocking the idea that she and millions of other Americans are a monolithic group that might convene regularly on Zoom. Coaston’s point is that Black people are individuals, even if they’re often not seen that way. “We expect a level of heterogeneity among White people that communities of color aren’t granted,” she says.

Coaston’s own individuality should be unmistakable, particularly among her left-leaning media peers in heavily Democratic D.C. The former political reporter for Vox and MTV is a registered Libertarian who got her start in right-leaning college media and professes “a healthy skepticism of state power.” She also happens to be a happily married queer person, a former speechwriter for the Human Rights Campaign, a churchgoing Christian and a fitness buff who works out roughly twice a day. In November, she joined the New York Times, where she hosts the paper’s relaunched opinion podcast “The Argument.”


QUICK HITS

• New Mexico’s marijuana legalization is here:

• President Joe Biden is once again pushing rape myths.

• Following Utah’s lead, Texas considers porn filter legislation. “Texas Republicans successfully amended a rural broadband bill last week to add a provision that prioritizes the awarding of contracts to internet service providers that ‘maintain a program to, by default, block access to pornographic or other obscene materials,'” XBIZ reports.

• Walter Olson on the Amazon unionization vote. (And more on the vote from Reason‘s Eric Boehm.)

• Say yes to this philosophy:

(See also: “Republicans Should Oppose Corporate Favors in General, Not Just as Retribution Against Woke Capitalism.”)

• Sigh:


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