Sunday Reading: Driving While Black

Mike Bonin
5 min readApr 18, 2021

Sunday morning offers many of us a time to reflect on the past week, and to do some extra reading and take a deeper dive into some of the items in the past week’s news. Over the past few days, in the wake of the killing of Daunte Wright, and as body cam footage emerged of the police abuse of Army officer Caron Nazario, there has been a lot of attention paid — appropriately — to the subject of “Driving While Black.” The intersection of policing, transportation and race is one of the most of crucial areas demanding a deep reimagining of public safety. Below is a collection of some background information, most of it from this week, on the subject.

Getting pulled over for “driving while Black” is a real and well-documented thing. Nationally and locally, police pull over African-Americans at disproportionate rates. Police search Blacks more frequently than they do whites, even though statistics show Blacks are less likely to have contraband. These stops are for broken tail lights, expired tags, or other minor things. Police make these stops as as a pretext to look for other evidence of criminal activity. It is vehicular “stop and frisk.” And it happens disproportionately — and differently — for people of color.

Daunte Wright

It’s not just driving either. Similar ‘pretextual’ stops happen with cyclists and pedestrians. These stops have little to do with improving road safety. And when conducted by armed officers with authority to use deadly force, they too often result in police killing Black men and women: Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Dijon Kizzee. Samuel DuBose. Richard Tyson. Daunte Wright. Kurt Reinhold.

This week, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed explaining “Why traffic stops can be deadly for people of color.” Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek Epp and Kelsey Shoubt write about how pretextual stops work, and how dangerous they are for African-Americans. The article details how prevalent the problem is, and points to one of the big reasons policy has not changed: “Because middle-class white drivers are less likely to experience these pretextual traffic stops, they may be unaware of their extent.”

The Washington Post ran an op-ed titled “Get police out of the business of traffic stops.” TJ Grayson and James Forman Jr. make a forceful argument against the status quo and argue for an entirely different system of enforcing traffic laws. They write that “rather than continuing to allow weaponized police officers with a tradition of anti-Black violence to enforce traffic laws, we should create dedicated traffic agencies whose sole mission is road safety . . . New traffic safety agencies, staffed by unarmed employees, could enforce routine traffic laws with less violence and damage to communities of color. Police involvement would be limited to dangerous situations.”

Earlier in the week, the New York Times published an op-ed, “Police Officers Shouldn’t Be the Ones to Enforce Traffic Laws. In it, Sarah Seo, professor at Columbia Law School and“author of “Policing the Open Road” argues that “having police officers implement traffic laws is not the only way to promote road safety. Indeed, the evidence suggests that it is not even the optimal way to do so.”

Seo argues that an armed response to traffic issues should be a last resort, not routine. That idea gets a tremendous amount of blowback from police unions and others, who contend that traffic stops are dangerous and the threat of violence is too great to use a different approach.

Slate ran a great story debunking that argument: The Myth of the Dangerous Traffic Stop Is Killing Black Men in America by Mark Josef Stern. The Slate article is an important read for policymakers and community leaders. Not only does it show the argument is a false one, but it explains how the prevalence of the myth and its constant reinforcement heightens the tensions of traffic stops and puts Black lives at risk.

USA Today recently reprinted a news story from the Burlington, North Carolina Times-News titled “What would happen if cops didn’t make certain traffic stops? This North Carolina city offers a case study.” What happened? Traffic fatalities went down, police uses of force went down, injuries to citizens and officers went down, and complaints against officers went down.

If you want to go even deeper to understand the issue, PBS aired a documentary last year: “Driving While Black.” Here is a trailer: https://www.pbs.org/video/extended-trailer-cokwee/

This is a huge issue here in Los Angeles. In 2019, the LA Times reported that data showed a black person in a vehicle was more than four times as likely to be searched by police as a white person, and a Latino was three times as likely. That same year, the LA Times detailed the problem of racially disparate enforcement in LAPD’s Metro unit.

What is being done about the issue in Los Angeles? As chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee and as a member of the Board of Directors of LA Metro, our regional transit agency, I have focused on this dangerous intersection of transportation, race, and law enforcement.

At the city level, my colleague Marqueece Harris-Dawson and I have launched an effort to remove armed enforcement from many transportation and traffic enforcement matters. At LA Metro, I have pushed an effort, currently underway, to reimagine public safety on the transit system. Local Progress, a national organization of local officials, has looked at what we are doing in Los Angeles, as part of its “Dare to Reimagine” agenda. And recently, I joined The Appeal, a joint effort of the Justice Collaborative and Now This News, to discuss our local efforts to remove armed officers from traffic and fare enforcement. You can see watch the interview at the link below:

Still looking for some more info on the subject? The Marshall Project has an online library of information and resources. And locally, Sahra Sulaiman of Streetsblog Los Angeles gives regular coverage to the issue on the website and in her twitter account.

-Mike

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