Windsor police officers pepper sprayed U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop in December that resulted in a lawsuit, the firing of one officer and outcry across Virginia and elsewhere. (NBC 12)
When you get behind the wheel next time, please do an informal mental check. What I’m asking will help explain the enormous power – and misguided priorities – of too many police officers out on patrol.
They’re just following orders from local officials, however, for the most part.
While driving, did you stop completely at the “Stop” sign? Are your taillights and turn signals working, or are some burned out? What about your license plate sticker: Has it expired? Did you change lanes without signaling?
All of these are reasons – or excuses – for officers to pull you over and write a ticket. Except that in too many instances across the country, that decision is more about filling municipal coffers than maintaining public safety. Several communities in Virginia are suspected of such shadiness.
And in hundreds of cases over the past few years, officers killed unarmed motorists who they weren’t pursuing for violent crimes. The stops escalated incidents needlessly – and fatally. Some motorists foolishly fled the police, but they shouldn’t have died because of it.
The New York Times published a series of articles this week, detailing how local officials demand their patrol officers boost revenue for even mundane traffic infractions.
The Times focused on a few states, including Virginia, where such stops have created outrage. Among them: the much-publicized arrest of a Black and Latino Army lieutenant in Windsor, over a purported license plate infraction in late 2020 along U.S. 460.
My colleague Ned Oliver reported previously that nearly 10 percent of Windsor’s local revenue came from fines. The town is home to just 2,600 people.
More than 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10 percent of their revenue, The Times said. The towns that depend on this revenue the most have fewer than 30,000 people.
The articles blamed federal officials, in part, because they award more than $600 million annually in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket-writing. Many municipalities rely on ticket revenue and court fees to pay for local services, the newspaper said, citing audits, budgets and other records.
That creates a not-so-subtle message to police officers: When in doubt, pull someone over. If you can, write a ticket. We need the money – including your own police department.
This is a pernicious way of doing business. It also increases the likelihood of possibly violent encounters, particularly with African-Americans and other people of color, who are pulled over disproportionately.
Philando Castile, shot dead by police near St. Paul, Minn., in 2016, had been stopped a whopping 52 times between 2002 and 2016. Police charged him with 86 minor offenses, though most of the charges were later dismissed, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a civil complaint.
Stops under scrutiny in Virginia include that of Juanisha Brooks, a 34-year-old Defense Department employee. News accounts say she had unlit taillights on I-495 in Northern Virginia early one morning in March. Authorities also suspected she was driving under the influence.
A Virginia State Police trooper pulled her over, handcuffed and arrested her. A state prosecutor later decided there was no basis for the stop.
“It’s sickening and unacceptable that any member of our community fears for their safety during a routine traffic stop,” Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said in a statement, according to NBC News. He asked the State Police to open an internal affairs investigation into the trooper.
That administrative probe was concluded and the trooper remains on the department, a State Police spokeswoman told me Wednesday. Laws involving confidentiality of personnel records prevented her from going into detail.
Stopping a car because it matches the description of robbery suspects? Few will argue about the reasoning. Is a pickup truck carrying a child who might have been abducted? Ditto.
Too often, that’s not the case for a traffic stop.
Chuck Wexler is the longtime executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit group based in Washington. His group was asked to review the policing in St. Louis City and County following the shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014.
The officers in too many small communities in that county, Wexler told me this week, were instructed to stop motorists for minor violations. “Cops weren’t acting as cops, but as revenue agents,” he said. “It was engendering a lot of anger.”
Of course it would.
Or as the organization’s April 2015 report noted: “This is a grossly inappropriate mission for the police, often carried out at the direction of local elected officials.”
The report added, more bluntly: “The role of police is to protect the public and to work with local communities to solve problems of crime and disorder — not to harass residents with absurd systems of fines and penalties, mostly for extremely minor offenses.”
Many cities and counties lean on their police departments for money because they have limited ways of raising revenue. They probably don’t want to increase real estate tax rates or other local levies against their own residents. I understand the quandary.
Pulling over motorists for piddling citations, however, is aggravating. It’s also potentially dangerous.
There’s got to be a better way to balance the books. Police-citizen relations would improve from the switch.
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