USA TODAY International Edition
Traffic- stop stories reveal the state of American policing
Editor’s note: Following the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29- year- old Black man who was beaten by Memphis police officers and ultimately killed following a traffic stop, USA TODAY Opinion spoke with Black and biracial Americans about their experiences with police in routine stops. These essays and conversations with voices editor Casey Blake have been edited for length and clarity.
We carry the burden of ensuring that we are not murdered
A traffic stop. Ostensibly a mundane event. For African Americans, however, it is anything but mundane. It could be a life- altering event at best; at its worst, it could be life- ending. Compelled by yet another highly publicized traffic stop- related killing in yet another American city, we tell each other our stories of what happened when we “got stopped.” The heart palpitations, the quick glance around the car for anything an officer could randomly deem “suspicious,” code switching the music to classical or silencing it. How many of us know this drill?
In San Francisco in the early 1980s, my brother and I were in my mother’s car, a Mercedes, driving up Van Ness Avenue. Preparing to turn left onto Lombard, my brother was careful to use the turn signal because naturally we had identified the motorcycle cop approaching from quite far behind us.
Predictably, he pulled us over once he caught up to us. My brother said, “Officer, I saw you so I ...” He didn’t have a chance to finish the sentence. The cop said, “So you deliberately cut me off!” I kept murmuring, “Don’t say anything, don’t say anything.”
The cop intended to escalate and could twist anything my brother said into something ugly to possibly drive the situation into an arrest, or worse. Our cousin had been beaten and blinded in one eye by a cop. He also had a plate in his head as a result of the assault.
That crashed into my mind as I tried to remain still and keep my brother calm. I believed that the officer may not have liked that two Black youngsters were in that particular car, another potential trigger for something bad to happen. We showed the appropriate paperwork, explained why we were driving the car, accepted the citation and were let go.
Across time, across geography and across life circumstances, we carry the burden of ensuring we are not murdered with impunity by the state during traffic stops and other abuses. But like so much in America, what starts as a problem for Black folks is a test drive for what could happen to anyone. America has been asleep at the wheel.
– Anneliese M. Bruner, writer, mother and Tulsa Race Massacre descendant, Washington, D. C.
Veterans have it easier than those who haven’t served, but it’s not like we’re safe
I’ve been stopped so many times I couldn’t even tell you.
I was stopped in a Wawa parking lot, minding my business trying to enjoy my hoagie, because an officer said there were “a lot of thefts in the area” and needed to check my ID.
I was stopped in front of my own house – I live in a cul- de- sac – by a cop who came up and asked me what I was smoking. It was a cigarette. He said, “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t smoking weed.”
The time I was pulled that could have gotten me killed I kind of misunderstood that he was telling me to go, so I started pulling away and he had to flag me down to come back. He knew I was a veteran, and he straight up said, “Man if you hadn’t served, that might have ended a whole different way.”
As a veteran, anyone who’s a minority knows there’s this kind of secret move. When you get pulled over, you get your wallet out and as you’re going for your license you try to slowly show your veteran card.
You never want to say, “Well I’m a veteran, you can’t give me a ticket” – of course they can, and you need to be respectful – but it’s like saying, “Hey, I’m safe, I’m just as straight as you are and I’m thanking you for your service by letting you know I served, too.”
Veterans have it easier than those who haven’t served, but it’s not like we’re safe.
We all know to do this. Minorities – I wouldn’t just say Black people – we just want to get that traffic stop or that interaction over as quickly as possible to get back into that safe space.
I think that’s what a lot of people don’t understand – that in that stop, in that moment – it’s a detainment. You’re being detained, and you just want to that to be over as quickly as you can. You want to get safe again.
For me, I’ve been able to use my military training to stay calm and to make rational decisions – to handle situations in that moment and set my emotions aside. But for a lot of people around me, they don’t have that, and something can just go off in them.
They’re just so tired. And they lose that respect in the moment. They just get tired of this happening over and over and over. And something just breaks in them and they run, or they let their emotions take over because maybe they don’t have the training not to. I think that’s just a normal human thing.
There’s just no trust there. There’s this thing in communities that are heavily policed called “the twirl” – where if you’re standing outside of your buddy’s house and an officer rolls by, he’ll stop and twist his finger in a circular motion, and you’re supposed to lift up your shirt and twirl around to show him you don’t have a gun on you.
It’s that type of thing. It’s unconstitutional, it’s wrong, but they get away with it. And people just get tired of that overpolicing, that constant hassle and harassment. At a community level, all the time, people just get tired of it.
I’m not a part of the “all cops are bastards” bunch – that’s not me. I have police in my family. There are so many things that need to change, but I’ve got no problem with more training.
I think the emphasis needs to be on training and field exercises in real- world situations to be able to set those emotions aside and not take them out on the job, with weapons in your hand. Until you get it right, you shouldn’t be out there with that huge responsibility. There has to be a change in the way policing is done, and the way they’re graded. If you fail, you fail, and if you’re not 100% trained you can’t be on the streets.
In military, we say we’ll run you until you get it right. And policing just is not getting it right.
– Freddy Wilkes, entertainment publicist and Army veteran, Camden, New Jersey.
It’s these kinds of small indignities. They just wear you down over time.
I owned a house in a gated community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I lived at the time. One day I’m driving up and as I’m approaching the first gate to enter my code, a police officer pulls up behind me. I stop, of course, and he asked, “What are you doing here? Where are you going?”
“See that house on the top of the hill?”
I said. “That’s mine.”
You could see it on his face. He just found it so hard to believe that I owned a million- plus dollar home in a gated community. That was in 2008.
But it’s these kinds of small indignities that come up over and over again. They just wear you down over time.
As a public defender, most of my clients are young, Black men. And the most common charges I see are assault, obstruct or resist arrest and concealedcarry charges. They’re all crimes related to the interaction from policing itself.
For these men, the police exist to keep order – they’re not there to protect and serve. And keeping order means, if necessary, they’re there to rough you up.
So when these men face police, that’s what they’re facing. In their minds, if they’re getting stopped, they’re facing either getting harassed or getting beaten or even killed, and for many of them they think, “I’ll take my chances and I’ll run.” But that’s the choice they see. And they face it over and over. And it carries on generationally.
In my life, I don’t know of any relatives or Black friends who haven’t been stopped for no reason.
Most traffic stops would result in a ticket at most, so there’s just no reason why we can’t go to a ticket- by- mail system for so much of this policing that would reduce these interactions, this harassment. If we can take your tag number when you’re speeding and send you a ticket in the mail, why not for a broken taillight or a registration issue?
Police want to present and the image that they’re fighting crime by traffic stops and to talk about how many guns they’ve taken off street. I think we’re finally seeing what the cost of that strategy is, and what it isn’t solving.
— Bill Noakes, attorney and professor, Detroit.
I do wish the indignity of having to explain myself mattered. But it doesn’t.
Sometime in 1997, I was driving a new car my parents generously bought for me. It was around 2 a. m. and I was returning to my dorm room. I was going to college in Brentwood, Los Angeles, which is next to Bel Air and is infamous for the O. J. Simpson murders. My apartment was near campus. There are lots of steep hills there and windy roads. As I drove, a police car rolled up next to me.
This unnerved me. To catch the eye of a cop is equivalent to being an antelope catching the eye of a lion. Then a bright white light shone at me that was almost blinding. I freaked out and swerved a bit. Then the car dropped back behind me, turned on the lights and hit the siren. Despite it being a residential area, the homes there are on large grounds. I rolled the window down and thought about how I would not be heard should I scream.
The officer walked up to my car with a flashlight in my eyes and said, “You know why I pulled you over?”
I shook my head.
“You were swerving.”
I wondered if I had been swerving before or after he flashed a light at me, but I knew better than to ask. “OK.”
He asked for and then received my license and registration. After he spent some time in his car, he came back with the flashlight still in my face. “So … What are you doing around here?”
“I go to Mount Saint Mary’s.”
“Oh yeah? What are you studying?” “English”
He scoffed. “What are you gonna do with that?”
“I’m a writer.”
He stopped talking for a weird few seconds. The light hurt my eyes but turning my face away might be perceived as a nonverbal dismissal or some kind of disrespect, so I didn’t.
“What are you?”
“My dad is Mexican. My mom is half Black, half Sri Lankan.”
“Where’s Sri Lanka?”
“It’s the island off of the southern tip of India.”
“Where are you from?”
“The Bay Area.”
“Where in the Bay Area?”
“Fremont and Berkeley”
“And where are your parents from?” “My dad is from Queens, New York, and my mom is from Philadelphia.” “And where did they meet?”
“New York City.”
After another awkward silence, he handed my license and registration back to me and told me to drive more carefully from now on. He followed me up the mountain a bit before turning down a side street. I didn’t breathe normally until he was gone.
I got lucky. Nothing happened. I must say nothing happened because of perspective. Compared with Tyre Nichols, Patrick Lyoya and countless others, absolutely nothing happened. That being said, I do wish the indignity of having to explain myself mattered. But it doesn’t.
The second I am not passive and responsive to these questions, people feel embarrassed or bad and they express those negative emotions by getting upset with me. Or by telling me I must be ashamed of who I am.
I can’t ever sigh deeply or simply not be in the mood to answer questions. It’s like that with regular people. I would never risk that happening with someone carrying a gun and qualified immunity. Every time I’m talking to a cop, I’m aware that my murder at their hands would only result in significant repercussions if their skin color was in any way similar to mine.
Qualified immunity ending is essential to change.
We also need a nationwide, up- todate registry of officers who have been fired for criminal acts. There is nothing to stop a fired bad cop from going somewhere else to get another job as an officer with a gun. The police are not trained in de- escalating mental health crises. Programs have already been run in cities like Denver, where health care workers handle mental health, drug use and homelessness calls without requesting police backup.
These are just some of the ways we can begin to unclench the blue fist that is wrapped around the throat of every person of color in America.