New York Times investigation finds training police to presume danger has made safe traffic stops deadly
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New York Times investigation finds training police to presume danger has made safe traffic stops deadly

The New York Times Sunday published the results of an investigation into police traffic stops in the United States finding that in the last five years officers have killed more than 400 vehicle occupants who were “not wielding a gun or knife [or] under pursuit for a violent crime.”

Since 2016, only five officers have been convicted of crimes for their involvement in traffic stop killings, but city governments have paid more than $125 million in wrongful-death lawsuits. In most cases, officers escape charges by claiming that they feared for their lives. Salt Lake County prosecutor Sim Gill said it is “virtually impossible” to prosecute an officer for a traffic stop killing under current legal authority.

However, experts believe many police officers anticipate aggression from drivers and overreact to normal behavior. The Times found that officers “placed themselves in danger by standing in front of fleeing vehicles or reaching inside car windows, then fired their weapons in what they later said was self-defense.” In other cases, evidence “contradicted the accounts of law enforcement officers,” and officers allegedly exaggerated the threats they faced in the field.

In February 2021, officers in Clark County, Washington, pulled over 30-year-old Jenoah Donald. Mr. Donald had tools on his passenger seat and repeated Deputy Holly Troupe’s commands back to her. In response, Deputy Sean Boyle punched Mr. Donald, and Deputy Troupe grabbed his jaw. Mr. Donald panicked and started his car with one hand while reaching for Deputy Boyle’s bulletproof vest. Deputy Boyle shot Mr. Donald in the head and killed him. Mr. Donald was autistic and worked as a mechanic.

Times journalists David D. Kirkpatrick, Steve Eder, Kim Barker, and Julie Tate emphasized that police training has primed officers “for decades” to be on edge during traffic stops. Police departments teach trainees that traffic stops are one of the most deadly situations for officers. However, this statistic is misleading. Police pull over “tens of millions” of cars each year, so “an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million.”

The investigation also revealed that black drivers are disproportionately stopped and killed. Some local governments have taken steps to address the traffic stop deaths and racial disparity. According to the Times, some departments now tell officers to let drivers flee traffic stops and charge them later for eluding police.