Guest columnist David Hoose: It’s time for unarmed traffic enforcement

  • This photo provided by Ben Crump Law, PLLC. shows Daunte Wright and his son, Daunte Jr., at his first birthday party. Wright, 20, was killed during a traffic stop by a white suburban Minneapolis police officer on Sunday, April 11. Ben Crump Law, PLLC. via AP

Published: 4/19/2021 1:13:33 PM

The Northampton Policing Review Commission’s recently released report included the recommendation that Northampton transition to an unarmed civilian response to minor motor vehicle accidents and traffic enforcement, for all but those offenses that pose an imminent threat to public safety.

The events in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota earlier this month underscore the reasons for, and indeed the urgency of the recommendation.

A young man in that community, Duante Wright, was killed by police after being stopped for a minor traffic violation. During the interaction, police became aware that he had a warrant for which he may or may not have been aware, for failing to appear on misdemeanor charges.

Traffic stops disproportionately involve people of color and are often thinly disguised excuses to investigate crime without probable cause. In other words, the traffic infraction is often a pretext to search for criminal behavior, usually drugs.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recently gone against the national norm and banned pretextual traffic stops. While this is a much welcomed and long overdue step in the right direction, it is not enough. We need to move toward an unarmed nonpolice response to most traffic enforcement, sooner rather than later.

An overarching theme of the Northampton Policing Review Commission’s report is the need to reduce the footprint of the police and the number of encounters between police officers and the public. Traffic stops are perhaps the most common police/citizen encounter. And if you are Black or brown, you are statistically more likely to be stopped by the police. Indeed, here in Northampton motorists of color are stopped at a rate that is disproportionate to their presence in the population, just as in every other community in America.

These encounters are inherently fraught with danger for both the motorist and the police officer, in large part due to the sheer number of firearms in circulation. Police officers are afraid and on high alert during these encounters for this reason. No police officer wants to lose his or her life over ticketing someone for a failure to signal a lane change, making an improper turn, or failing to have his license plate properly illuminated, though people are stopped for these reasons routinely.

Motorists, particularly those of color, are afraid too, and for good reason. In addition to being stopped more frequently, studies show that the encounter is more likely to result in abusive treatment and end badly. Social psychological research has demonstrated beyond dispute that when dealing with people of color police officers are quicker to shoot, more likely to interpret neutral behaviors as threatening, and more likely to use harsh or abusive language during the encounter.

Many will fault Mr. Wright for trying leave the traffic encounter, but can we really blame him, given the number of people of color who have been killed by the police in these encounters?

People of color are overwhelmingly terrified of the police and act out of fear. In South Carolina, Walter Scott was shot in the back after he panicked and ran away during a traffic encounter. In Oklahoma, Terrence Crutcher was shot in the back after he turned toward his motor vehicle during a traffic stop. And in Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot seven times after he politely told the police officer that he had a legal handgun in his car and then tried to retrieve his license as the officer had requested.

The conclusions and recommendations of the Northampton Policing Review Commission were based on the fact that the racially biased perception of an association of young men of color with violence and aggression runs so deep in our society that we cannot educate or train our police or anyone else not to be biased. Again, this is established beyond any doubt by the work of social psychologists such as Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University and many others referenced in her excellent book, “Biased.”

Even without reference to the science on racial bias, the Wright case underscores how inherently dangerous these encounters are due to the simple fact that the actors involved are human, and therefore will make mistakes. I don’t believe for a minute that Officer Potter intended to shoot Mr. Wright while she was training younger officers, while being video recorded, and after shouting, “I’ll tase you” three times before discharging her firearm. After the shot, she said, “Holy sh**, I shot him.”

Unlike Derek Chauvin and the officer who shot Walter Scott in the back, I have seen no reports of a history of violent or abusive behavior by Potter. She appears to have made a mistake, whether because she was tired, distracted, panicked or simply human. Whatever the reason, a young man is dead, and a veteran police officer’s life will never be the same.

And for what? An expired plate? Objects hanging from the mirror? A misdemeanor warrant? If any or all three, was it worth it? Incidents like this can happen anywhere, including in Northampton. We should jump to the forefront of the movement, now being embraced by other communities across the United States, toward traffic enforcement by an unarmed civilian entity.

David Hoose is a member of the Northampton Policing Review Commission who was tasked with looking at unarmed civilian traffic enforcement. The views expressed are his alone and not necessarily those of his fellow commissioners.

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