Tyre Nichols and Memphis police officers got into what seemed to be a simple traffic stop. This is similar to a number of recent high-profile cases of police brutality.
Nichols is one of hundreds of people, like Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Patrick Lyoya, Daunte Wright, Jayland Walker, and Walter Scott, who were killed after being stopped by police for traffic violations.
Traffic stops are one of the most common ways that police and regular people talk to each other, and most of them end without any problems. But experts in policing say Nichols’ death shows again that traffic stops can quickly turn into violent and even deadly fights, especially for people of colour. This is partly because of how officers are trained.
Jordan Blair Woods, a professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, said that this situation shows how quickly things can go from 0 to 100. “It really does raise a lot of questions about not only how we train police officers and how we try to calm things down during traffic stops, but also what we let police officers do in the traffic space to begin with.”
How often do people die after police pull them over?
The Stanford Open Policing Project says that police stop more than 50,000 people every day and more than 20 million drivers every year. The study found that black drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched.
Mapping Police Violence, a group that keeps track of police killings, says that since 2017, more than 600 people have been killed by police after their first encounter was over a traffic violation or crime related to traffic.
An NPR investigation of police killings of unarmed Black men and women between 2015 and 2021 found that more than a quarter of the deaths happened during traffic stops.
Why do fights break out at traffic stops?
Woods said that one reason traffic stops can turn violent is that officers are taught to see them as “especially dangerous” because they “never know who will be behind the wheel.” But his research shows that random violence doesn’t happen very often during traffic stops, and when it does, it’s often because of how the police officers act.
Stops can get worse when officers don’t like how drivers or passengers respond to their orders, which “has a lot to do with how they see danger and race,” Woods said. He showed a video of the stop of Nichols, who was black, and said that officers can be heard yelling at him even though he seems to be doing what they say and is being held back.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said that the department hasn’t been able to back up its initial claim that Nichols’s driving was so dangerous that he had to be pulled over.