When Daunte Wright was killed last spring by a police officer in Minnesota after being pulled over for expired registration tags, the case drew national attention. So have several other seemingly avoidable deaths of motorists.
Now, a New York Times investigation reveals the scope of such cases across the country — and why traffic stops for minor offenses can escalate into fatal encounters.
Over the last five years, The Times found, the police killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife or under pursuit for a violent crime.
Traffic stops — which are often motivated by hidden budgetary considerations because of the ticket revenue they generate — are the most common interactions between police officers and the public. Yet the police consider them among the most dangerous things they do.
That presumption of peril has been significantly overstated, but it has become ingrained in police culture and court precedents — contributing to impunity for most officers who use lethal force at vehicle stops.
Here are some other key findings.
How encounters escalate
Many of the vehicle stops The Times reviewed began for common traffic violations like broken taillights, or for questioning about nonviolent offenses like shoplifting.
From there, things escalated. More than three-quarters of the motorists were killed trying to flee. In dozens of encounters, officers stepped in front of moving vehicles or reached inside car windows, then fired their guns, claiming self-defense.
In other cases, the police responded aggressively to disrespect or defiance, punishing what some officers call “contempt of cop.”
“We have got to take him out,” an Oklahoma state trooper declared over the radio in 2019 to patrolmen chasing a man suspected of shoplifting vodka. The officers forced his S.U.V. from the road, opened a door as it rolled slowly past and shot from both sides, killing the driver.
Few convictions, but settlement payouts
In case after case, officers avoided criminal liability when they claimed to have acted in self-defense.
In the roughly 400 deaths, five officers were convicted. Nearly two dozen cases are still pending. While prosecutors deemed most of the killings justifiable, local governments paid at least $125 million to resolve legal claims in about 40 cases.
Overstated risks stoke fears
Trainers often use misleading statistics and gory dashcam videos of drivers gunning down officers during traffic stops to teach cadets to be hypervigilant, The Times found.
“All you’ve heard are horror stories about what could happen,” said Sarah Mooney, assistant police chief in West Palm Beach. “It is very difficult to try to train that out of somebody.”
There are genuine risks, but studies have found that an officer’s chances of ending up dead at a vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million. Over the past five years, and at least 100 million traffic stops, motorists who had been pulled over killed about 60 police officers, primarily by gunshots, according to a Times analysis.
A financial incentive to stop motorists
Many communities rely heavily on ticket revenue to fund their budgets, effectively turning their officers into revenue agents searching for violations, even minor ones, to support municipal needs — including their own pay raises.
For example, Valley Brook, Okla., a town of under 900 people, collects roughly $1 million from traffic cases annually.
The federal government also contributes to the traffic stops with $600 million a year in highway safety grants that reward ticket writing. In applying for these grants, at least 20 states have used the number of traffic stops per hour to evaluate police performance, a practice that critics say encourages overpolicing.
Evidence of racial bias
In the deaths reviewed by The Times, Black drivers were overrepresented relative to the population. Kalfani Ture, a criminologist and former Georgia police officer who is Black, said overstating the risks to officers compounded racial bias.
“Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and the combination is volatile,” he said.
The problem is especially acute at so-called pretextual stops, he added, where officers seek out minor violations — expired registration, tinted windows — to search a car they consider suspicious.
Going beyond the ‘final frame’
Criminologists call it officer-created jeopardy when the police put themselves in harm’s way by stepping in front of a moving car or reaching inside a car window.
Many courts do not consider those circumstances, focusing only on the “final frame” when an officer pulled the trigger at a moment of imminent harm. That standard has given the police broad protection from legal accountability.
Some argue that judges and juries should scrutinize the actions of officers before they opened fire. The Times’s visual investigations team did just that, rewinding video from more than 100 deadly traffic stops and breaking down three cases in minute detail. The footage suggests that dozens of deaths could have been avoided had police officers not put themselves in danger.
The Times examined video or audio from more than 180 encounters; interviewed dozens of chiefs, officers, trainers and prosecutors; analyzed information from the U.S. Census Bureau; and reviewed hundreds of lawsuits, municipal audit reports, town budgets, court files and state highway records. The investigation built on data collected by The Washington Post and the research groups Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters.
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