Policing for profit encourages unfair enforcement of the law. It also increases the likelihood that motorists stopped for infractions largely unrelated to public safety will be killed or injured during encounters with officers who are trained to view traffic stops as moments of mortal peril.
The situation cries out for departments to change how officers are trained. Ultimately, these departments need to stand down from practices that bring many more people than necessary into contact with the law under circumstances that too often lead to what one district attorney refers to as “anticipatory killings” by police officers.
The New York Times lays out these and other issues in an alarming investigation of the culture that too often transforms traffic stops for common violations into unnecessary beatings, car chases or shootings.
The Times investigation found that over the past five years, police officers have killed more than 400 drivers who were not brandishing guns or knives or who were not being pursued for dangerous crimes.
Many of these motorists ended up dead in stops that began with standard violations like having broken taillights or running a red light. Over and over again, prosecutors convinced the courts that the killings were legally justified because the officers felt that their lives were endangered.
Only five officers were convicted of crimes in connection with these deaths — but local governments ended up paying at least $125 million to settle about 40 wrongful-death suits and other claims.
The Times investigation found in a number of encounters that officers often seemed to exaggerate the threat to their lives. Worse still, officers commonly manufactured dangerous situations by stationing themselves in front of fleeing cars or reaching inside of vehicles. They then fired their guns in what they later described as self-defense.
African American motorists were overrepresented among those killed. A criminologist told The Times that the act of exaggerating the danger of stops compounded racial bias: “Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and the combination is volatile,” he said.
Officers are sometimes killed during traffic stops, but statistically speaking, the odds of that actually happening are low. Traffic stops are far and away the most common point of contact between people and the law. Given that there are tens of millions of such stops each year, studies have found that an officer’s chances of being killed during one are less than 1 in 3.6 million.
Nevertheless, police academies tend to show trainees gory videos and worst-case scenarios, while depicting the traffic stop as the most dangerous encounter an officer can engage in.
As one police official told The Times: “All you’ve heard are horror stories about what could happen. It is very difficult to try to train that out of somebody.” A culture of gross exaggeration creates an atmosphere in which outrageous police conduct leading up to a civilian death is judged acceptable.
For example, The Times investigation found that more than three-quarters of the unarmed motorists who died were killed while attempting to flee. Dashboard and body-camera footage showed officers “shooting at cars driving away, or threatening deadly force in their first words to motorists, or surrounding sleeping drivers with a ring of gun barrels — then shooting them when, startled awake, they tried to take off.”
The federal government worsens this problem by spending more than $600 million a year to subsidize the writing of tickets. At least 20 states have responded to this policy by evaluating police officers based on how many stops they make per hour.
Communities that are dependent on traffic-ticket revenue sometimes maintain larger police departments than are really necessary only for the purpose of raking in money. The Times investigation found more than 730 municipalities that rely on fees and fines for at least 10 percent of their revenue.
The town of Henderson, La., with a population of about 2,000, got nearly 90 percent of its general revenue from fines and fees in 2019. Oliver, Ga., home to about 380 people, gets more than half its budget from fines. A state investigation found that last year the town’s police force had written more than $40,000 worth of tickets outside its legal jurisdiction.
Departments that trawl poor communities in particular for ticket revenue — and whose officers sometimes manufacture infractions — undermine trust in the law. Policing for profit also subjects motorists to unfair scrutiny and potentially dangerous encounters with officers during traffic stops. States and municipalities need to move away from this practice.