Cops are taught to kill anyone who blinks

The latest victim of killer cops, Tyre Nichols, was murdered after a traffic stop.

The initial police story was that he was pulled over for reckless driving and then resisted arrest. But “Memphis’s police chief later told CNN that investigators have ‘been unable to substantiate’ the claim that Nichols was driving recklessly,” Vox reported here.

That immediately triggers suspicion that Nichols was stopped for “driving while black.” But this is complicated by the fact his killers are black, too. The reality is more complicated.

The cops charged with Nichols’s murder were involved with a special unit set up to suppress street crime through a tactic called “saturation patrols” (explained here). Nichols probably was a victim of a “pretext stop,” another police tactic that uses traffic stops for trivial offenses (such as a burned-out license plate light) as an excuse or pretext to search vehicles for drugs and weapons.

As one researcher wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking … they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.” This tactic is a close cousin of the “stop and frisk” tactic courts ruled unconstitutional.

But the problem is much deeper — and made far deadlier — by something else: Police are taught to be afraid of civilians. “Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” an Arizona law professor says.

But that’s not a realistic portrayal of the risks cops face on the streets. As Vox points out, “police officers are rarely injured in traffic stops.” For example, analysis of Florida traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014 showed “police had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured.” Data from other states “mirrors [those] findings.”

And in the case of black people, bias and assumed dangerousness is layered on top of that. Thus, “If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem.”

This helps explain why police encounters with black drivers escalate so quickly, sometimes into deadly violence against the civilian. The combination of aggressive police tactics and training cops to be fearful of every civilian they encounter, when coupled with racial bias and stereotyping, puts “Black drivers in mortal danger.”

Some jurisdictions have tried to prevent this by “prohibit[ing] officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety.” For similar reasons, Washington D.C. reassigned some traffic enforcement from police to its transportation department; and last year “New York City police announced they’d no longer use stops to randomly check for open warrants.”

The rationale for that policy change is obvious. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that a cop who pulls over a driver to check his ID against a list of felony fugitives probably has one hand on his gun and an itchy trigger finger.

The bottom line is that Americans, and especially black people, are increasingly encountering amped-up cops. The roots causes lie in a flawed hiring process that gives badges to people who shouldn’t be cops, a flawed training system that encourages police violence against citizens, flawed police management that is too reluctant to discipline and control rogue cops, and a flawed legal system that encourages cops to believe they can get away with crossing the line.

If we are to put an end to what happened to Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, and others, all of this needs to change. We need police, otherwise we’ll be overrun by criminals. But America has a policing crisis that calls for serious and sweeping reforms.

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