Cedrick Frazier has been thinking about the time when he was 17, driving his aunt's old Ford Escort, and Chicago police pulled him over for a broken taillight. After officers discovered the car wasn't registered to Frazier, the routine stop turned into something more. They detained Frazier on the side of the road for 45 minutes to search the vehicle.
Frazier, who is Black, is now a 41-year-old DFL state representative from New Hope and a father of three. "I was terrified. I didn't know what to do," he said, recalling the ordeal at a public hearing last week. "Watching the video of Daunte [Wright], I saw that same fear. ... He didn't know what to do."
The police killing of 20-year-old Wright has given new urgency to demands that Minnesota reduce "pretextual stops" — the use of minor traffic or equipment violations as a legal way for police to pull over drivers they wish to investigate. Data show police disproportionately stop drivers of color in minority neighborhoods, giving rise to the scathing description of pretext stops as "driving while Black."
In 2020, 121 people were killed across the nation during traffic stops, accounting for about 10% of fatal police encounters, according to data collected by Mapping Police Violence, a group of researchers who record every death at the hands of law enforcement.
Proponents say these minor stops are an effective tool that alert police to more serious crimes. This is how a state trooper famously caught Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — by stopping him for driving with no license tag.
But a growing body of research shows pretext stops don't do much to curb serious crime, said Maria Ponomarenko, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. "The overwhelming evidence is it doesn't work," Ponomarenko said. "Hit rates are incredibly low."
It was a pretext stop that ended with St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shooting Philando Castile in 2016. Seconds before pulling Castile over in Falcon Heights, ostensibly for a broken taillight, Yanez told dispatch he'd seen a driver with a "wide-set nose" who resembled a robbery suspect. Before his death, Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, had been pulled over 49 times for mostly minor violations.
Outrage over the killing of Castile propelled his friend John Thompson into politics. At a rally for Wright this week, Thompson, a first-term DFL representative from St. Paul, said killings like these will continue until Minnesota confronts racial bias in policing.
"A traffic stop should not amount to a damn death sentence," Thompson said.
On the afternoon of April 11, Brooklyn Center police officers pulled over Wright for driving with expired tabs. When they found he had a warrant, they tried to handcuff him. Wright ducked back into his car. Brooklyn Center officer Kimberly Potter shot him after threatening to use a Taser. Potter resigned and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
In the days after Wright's death, protesters hung air fresheners on a fence surrounding the police station. Wright phoned his mother right before he died and said he had been stopped for an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror.
'Massive racial gulf'
Wright's death came the same week footage went viral of police officers in Virginia drawing guns on Army Lt. Caron Nazario during a traffic stop.
"What's going on?" asked Nazario, a Black and Latino man in full uniform, when officers ordered him to get out of the car.
"What's going on is you're fixing to ride the lightning, son," replied one of the officers.
In a lawsuit, Nazario said his treatment is "consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority."
Police officers have discretion over when to pull over a vehicle, especially for minor crimes such as failing to signal within 100 feet of a turn, speeding a few miles per hour over the limit or driving with a broken light.
In Minneapolis, Black and East African drivers account for 78% of times a police officer pulls someone over for a moving or equipment violation and end up searching the vehicle, according to one year of Minneapolis police data ending in May 2020. Whites made up 12% of searches during the same types of stops in that time frame. For Black and East African drivers, 26% of searches resulted in arrest, compared with 41% of whites, according to the data.
Hennepin County Public Defender Jay Wong, who started studying traffic data after the police killing of George Floyd last year, said the pandemic has led to a precipitous drop in traffic stops in the city. But the racial gaps have persisted, he said. "The breakdown of who is being pulled over has not changed, which frankly is disheartening to see."
The disparity creates a "massive racial gulf" between how white drivers and those of color experience policing on the road, said Michelle Phelps, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies criminal justice. White drivers are pulled over less frequently, and usually when they've committed a crime, making it difficult for them to understand the Black experience, she said.
Black Americans "are very much targeted by law enforcement, as the data show, and people know it," said Phelps. "So they experience it as a form of second-class citizenship. They are being pulled over because of their race, and they are being treated disrespectfully and hostilely because of their race."
Decades of research have found little benefit from minor traffic stops, prompting academics to call for police to rethink the strategy, said Phelps. But "like many areas in the criminal justice system, there's a huge disconnect with the research and what we're actually doing."
In 2017, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry invited researchers from New York University's Policing Project to assess racial disparities in traffic stops after a Black man, Jocques Clemmons, was killed by police during a stop. Researchers found Black drivers were 68% more likely than whites to be pulled over for non-moving violations, such as broken taillights or expired tabs. Police said they focused their resources on high-crime neighborhoods, which were predominantly communities of color.
The study found that the traffic stops weren't actually bringing down crime rates. For every 1,000 non-moving violation stops, only 21 resulted in an arrest or recovery of drugs or contraband. And the toll on the community wasn't worth the lost trust and psychological damage, the study concluded.
As a result of the study, Nashville police rewrote their training program, asking officers to focus less on pretext stops. Over the past five years, traffic stops in that city have declined 90%.
Bill would limit stops
Other states have also taken a hard look at the cost and benefit of pretext stops in recent years and enacted new policies or legislation to reduce racial disparities.
In February, City Council members in Berkeley, Calif., voted to ban police from making low-level traffic stops.
Lawmakers in Virginia passed a law to downgrade traffic offenses, such as loud exhaust systems, tinted windows or objects hanging from a rearview mirror, and to prohibit police from searching a car based on the smell of marijuana.
The police chief in Lansing, Mich., announced last summer the department would stop pulling drivers over for equipment violations that don't pose a public safety risk.
Minnesota has been resistant to comprehensive change, said Ponomarenko, who took part in the Nashville research.
"Minnesota has done a lot less than its peer states have in recent years," she said. "The legislation that has been adopted has been much more piecemeal, and much more peripheral."
Minneapolis introduced a program called Lights On, which allows police officers to issue repair vouchers, instead of tickets, to drivers. Police leadership said the program would create more positive experiences with drivers. But data show white drivers are given the voucher at higher rates than Black ones. The city paused the program during the pandemic.
This past week, Frazier introduced a bill that would limit the authority of police officers to stop or detain drivers for low-level equipment violations. The bill would be the state's most comprehensive move to address how police approach traffic stops.
"We don't need to have law enforcement making these types of stops," Frazier said. "We don't need to have these types of interactions that we are seeing go totally in the wrong direction and escalate to the point of death."
Staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036