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Every year, police pull over millions of Americans for minor infractions like broken tail lights and expired licenses. But for Black and brown Americans—like Philando Castile, Daunte Wright, and others—even routine encounters can turn deadly.
Now, cities are beginning to curtail cops’ ability to conduct these minor traffic stops.
Last week, Ramsey County, Minnesota, became the latest place to announce it will no longer prosecute minor violations like vehicle registration issues, broken headlights or taillights, or windshield and window-tint violations. In many cases, these police stops can lead to racial profiling because officers will use the traffic infraction as reason to pull over a suspicious vehicle or person in hopes of finding drugs or other crimes.
Police in St. Anthony, another city in Ramsey County, for example, pulled over Castile for minor infractions at least 31 times in the years from when he was 19 until he died in 2016 at age 32. The day he was shot and killed, the officer pulled him over because he had a “wide-set nose” that allegedly resembled a robbery suspect.
“We just want to be able to co-exist. We want the police to do their job, protect and serve, and we want to be comfortable in our own skin,” said Castile’s mother, Valerie, who helped spearhead the reform effort. “We want to be comfortable when we leave the house to go for a drive on a nice sunny day, without that anxiety, without thinking in the back of your mind that you may be pulled over.”
Though police in Ramsey County can still make these kinds of low-stakes stops, the new policy will discourage officers, who sometimes use low-level offenses as a reason to pull over suspicious vehicles in hopes of finding drugs or other crimes. The county attorney’s office will also stop prosecuting cases where an officer finds evidence of a non-violent crime as the result of a consensual search. Police chiefs in St. Paul, the county’s largest city, and smaller towns in the county like Roseville and Maplewood, have already agreed to follow suit.
In August, Minneapolis, the sister city to St. Paul, enacted a similar policy. And earlier this year, the city council in Berkeley, California voted to deprioritize non-public safety stops so cops can focus solely on more dangerous traffic violations. Last year, San Francisco’s District Attorney Chesa Boudin also stopped charging cases where contraband was discovered during pretextual traffic stops.
“The demands for change are really clear,” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi told VICE News. “I’ve been in office now for more than a decade and I don’t want to perpetuate the things that I think are unjust. And one of the things I think is unjust is the police practice that exists to utilize these types of non-public safety stops as a way to investigate more.”
“We just want to be able to co-exist. We want the police to do their job, protect and serve, and we want to be comfortable in our own skin.”
Historically, a gap has always existed between the police stops involving Black motorists and their white counterparts. According to a study from the Stanford University Open Policing Project, which examined 200 million traffic stops conducted between 2011 and 2019, the police in 21 states stopped Black and Hispanic drivers with less evidence than white drivers. The states include Minnesota, California, and North Carolina—all places where cities have recently reformed.
“I’ve worked a shitload of cases where the police know a Black guy driving down the street and have had a ton of prior contacts with them. Suddenly, it’s ‘oh, your bumper looks like its hanging a little low, we might need to stop and ask about that,” Luke Neuville, a Minneapolis-based attorney who also takes cases in Ramsey County, said. “Then lo and behold, they’re sniffing out, saying they look suspicious and then they’re searching the car. This kind of BS happens all of the time.”
But the move to pull people over less for non-public safety offenses dates back years—the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina began unofficially adopting the reform as early as 2013. Its former police chief, Harold Medlock, asked his officers in 2013 to reduce the number of minor traffic stops and focus solely on more serious violations such as speeding and stop-light violations.
The chief’s directive had positive results not only on the racial disparity of traffic stops; it also increased the number of public safety stops being conducted while reducing the number of traffic crash-related injuries, according to a 2020 study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The study also concluded that doing away with these stops can help increase the general public’s confidence in their police.
“Why wouldn’t anybody want that?” said Choi, who credits Fayetteville with proving the reduction of traffic stops gets results. “We have to stand up and talk about this like Chief Medlock did. We need to generate the conversation, even if we know there might initially be some intense blowback.”
In years prior, Ramsey County traffic stop statistics reflected national trends of racial divides in traffic policing. According to an analysis published by the Pioneer Press in June, despite making up less than 13% of the county’s driving population, Black residents accounted for 36 percent of the stops between 2016 and 2020 on average. Meanwhile, whites, who made up 58 percent of the county’s driving population, accounted for 41 percent of the traffic stops on average.
These stops are rarely worth law enforcement’s time, according to Choi.
“We've been raised to believe is that somehow these kind of stops save the day—that it takes guns off the streets, takes drugs out of the hands of people who shouldn't have it. It’s just simply not true,” Choi said. “Historically, when police do this, they’ll only get a hit 2 percent of the time. People like me have to stop perpetuating this practice, because historically when police do this, they're being rewarded.”
Earlier this year for example, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, officer who claimed to have mixed up her service gun and her taser when trying to detain him following a traffic stop over an expired registration. Although he did have a warrant out for his arrest, he was unarmed at the time he was shot for getting back into his car.
Preventing these stops from happening doesn’t just appeal to Black and brown motorists either.
“Most of the public, even conservatives, can appreciate this policy,” Neuville told VICE News. “Who wants to be stopped for something as simple as having something hanging from their rearview mirror?”
Choi, who has been in office since 2011, is hopeful that Ramsey County will see results similar to what the North Carolina city saw five years ago. But the nature of changing administrations can also hinder these efforts. After Medlock’s retirement in 2016, the percent of safety-related stops dropped in Fayetteville and the percent of Black drivers stopped reverted back to the numbers seen before his tenure, according to the study.
Still, Valerie Castile is hopeful.
“I'm the type of person who believes you can speak things into existence,” she said. “I think the more you talk about these issues and problems and confront them, then you’ll know how to deal with them.”