The most common way that people interact with the police is arguably also one of the most fraught: traffic stops.
The police killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Samuel DuBose in Ohio, and Walter Scott in South Carolina all began with cops pulling a Black man over for some minor offense—a missing front license plate in DuBose’s case, and broken taillights in Castile’s and Scott’s. Each of these incidents galvanized protests and a greater understanding that cops stop and kill Black motorists at disproportionate rates. But the problem didn’t go away.
It happened again earlier this month, when a veteran cop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, allegedly mistook her gun for a Taser and killed Daunte Wright, a Black motorist, during a traffic stop that police say first began due to expired registration tags.
Interactions between motorists and the police don’t have to be deadly to cause harm, either. Like in the high-profile case of Caron Nazario in Windsor, Virginia, last December. Cops pulled him over at gunpoint because they thought he lacked a rear license plate—though he had temporary tags on the back of his SUV, according to a lawsuit Nazario filed this month—and demanded that he exit his vehicle.
At one point, when Nazario admitted to the police that he was afraid to leave the SUV, one officer responded, “Yeah, you should be.”
“Lt. Nazario was fortunate that there were no guns fired,” Isle of Wight NAACP President Valerie Butler said after the incident, according to WVEC, an ABC affiliate. “But what will happen on the next traffic stop?”
Many Americans have found themselves asking the same question in the past few weeks. VICE News spoke to three experts about how people can keep themselves safe and express their rights when they get pulled over—and how officials could do a better job at addressing some of the inherent dangers in these encounters.
What do I do if I get pulled over?
First, there’s the question of how a person should safely stop their vehicle once they see flashing lights.
In Nazario’s case, the second Army lieutenant traveled less than a mile—for approximately 1 minute, 40 seconds at a low rate of speed—after Officer Daniel Crocker initiated the stop against him. It was dark outside, and “for the benefit of the officer’s safety and his own,” Nazario wanted to pull over at a BP gas station, according to his lawsuit.
But one officer responding to the scene, Joe Gutierrez, later wrote in a report that police treated the encounter as high risk in part because Nazario “took so long to stop.” The incident escalated from there; officers came in with their guns drawn, barked commands at Nazario, and Gutierrez eventually pepper-sprayed him.
Officers will give “some leeway” if drivers want to look for a safe, well-lit place to stop, Byron Conway, an assistant federal public defender Atlanta, said. But, “if they start to feel that you are trying to elude them or flee by not stopping as quickly as they think you should, then you’re automatically going to get an officer who is probably going to escalate the situation right off the get-go,” he said.
He usually tells his clients that if an officer is signaling them to pull over, they should do it as soon as possible to ensure the officer doesn’t think they’re attempting to escape.
“Part of the reason that the officers unjustifiably, unfortunately, escalated the situation [with Nazario] is because they assumed that he was trying to flee or trying to conceal something rather than just trying to find a well-lit area,” Conway said. “I think that’s, unfortunately, the way a lot of officers look at situations like that. It’s not the right way to look at it. It’s not even probably the lawful way to look at it. But they look at it that way.”
After they’ve stopped, a driver’s natural first response might also be to question why cops pulled them over. They may also admit that they’re afraid, or question the officer’s commands. Still, “there’s no law that says the police can’t take action against you until they explain to you why they’re doing it, or why they’re pulling you over,” although police need a legal justification for the stop, said Jason Williamson, deputy director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
So even if the driver feels that they’ve been wronged, they have to follow lawful orders given by the police, like a command to get out of the vehicle.
“As a civil rights attorney, an activist, and someone who has been fighting for racial and social justice for a long time, it pains me to ever tell someone they shouldn’t stand up for their rights,” Williamson said. “But in the wake of all of these incidents of people—Black people—being killed by the police, I’m not sure that it’s responsible to tell people that they should resist at every turn what the police are telling them to do, even though they may very well be right to question what’s happening to them.”
Conway said policies about what an officer has to do when they’re pulling someone over depend on the jurisdiction. Some places require an officer to tell a person why they’re being stopped, he noted.
VICE News reached out to several police departments to inquire about their traffic stop policies. A spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department said officers there are supposed to inform drivers why they’re being pulled over “in a professional and courteous manner” during low-level stops. A spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department also said “officers will state the reason for the traffic stop upon approaching the vehicle.”
Cops can pull people over for a slew of reasons: speeding, having a busted taillight, missing a license plate, expired registration, and even dangling an air freshener from a rearview mirror, among other violations.
As to whether people should film their traffic stops, Conway it’s a good idea to get a car phone mount just in case. If a person doesn’t have one and needs to hold onto their phone to record an interaction with police, both hands should be up and visible and they should alert the officer that they’re filming, Conway said.
Still, the decision to record should depend on the person, their circumstances, and whether it’s safe to do so, Williamson said.
Conway also said he tells clients to turn lights on in their car cabin while they’re being stopped. “You want your car inside to be as bright as possible so that officers can’t mistake any of the movements that you’re making,” he said.
“You want your car inside to be as bright as possible so that officers can’t mistake any of the movements that you’re making.”
If a driver is going to reach for their wallet or go into their glove compartment, they should ask for the officer’s permission, Conway added. (Notably, the Minnesota cop who shot Castile, Jeronimo Yanez, killed him after Castile mentioned he was carrying a legal gun. Yanez told him not to reach for it. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said Castile moved to get his ID—not the gun—before Yanez shot him.)
If an officer gets violent and throws a driver from their vehicle or pepper-sprays them, it’s important to remain compliant. While that essentially means that people have to accept their assault while it’s happening, it also means they’ll be alive to fight the officer’s conduct in court.
“If you are an unfortunate victim of physical harm or physical violence by an officer, it sounds really almost gross to say, but you probably should acquiesce to their commands even more, and lean into following their orders,” Conway said.
“Our main goal is to get people out of this alive, and then let us as lawyers deal with the rest of it once we know that you’re safe,” Conway said. “We want you to be in a position where you can, in an appropriate setting, challenge the conduct of these officers.”
Opportunities for reform
If it sounds messed up that there’s a genuine fear an officer might hurt or kill someone a driver during a traffic stop because they didn’t follow orders to a tee, know that attorneys and advocates think so, too. But there are some ideas about how to make these interactions safer.
For one, police could get out of the business of making traffic stops altogether. Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democrat, suggested that move in a tweet on April 12.
“Police killed 121 people in traffic stops in 2020,” Bush said. “Black people are pulled over at disproportionate rates. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Daunte Wright. All their deaths began with a traffic stop. Remove police from traffic enforcement. We can’t keep adding names to this list.”
“Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Daunte Wright. All their deaths began with a traffic stop. Remove police from traffic enforcement.”
In Minneapolis, one mayoral candidate, Sheila Nezhad, said she’d support moving traffic enforcement to the city’s tracking and parking services department, according to the Appeal.
Another problem is that officers have a plethora of regulations and policies they can cite as a pretext for pulling people over so they can investigate something else, even if the initial offense didn’t cause immediate danger to public safety.
But some cities and states are doing something about it. Officials in Berkeley, California, for example, recently decided that police should deprioritize stops involving low-level offenses, like expired tags, so cops can instead focus on offenses directly related to safety, according to the media outlet Berkeleyside. Virginia legislators also voted to limit cops from pulling people over solely for minor things like busted tail lights and tinted windows last year.
“The reason you see so many of these pretext stops is because they create opportunities to mostly look for drugs,” said Maria Ponomarenko, an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota. “The more we reduce that incentive by decriminalizing drugs or by limiting what officers can do, the less desirable those stops become.”
Lawmakers should also consider changing the circumstances in which it’s acceptable for cops to use force, said Ponomarenko, who is also co-founder and counsel at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law.
“There may be circumstances when it actually is better to let somebody walk away,” Ponomarenko said, “than to use overwhelming force in order to take them into custody.”