Time to examine whether minor vehicle infractions merit police stops

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS)
Demonstrators protesting the killing of Patrick Lyoya gather on April 14, 2022, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lyoya, a 26-year-old immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, died after being shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer following a traffic stop on April 4. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

One big question deserves to be on every police officer’s mind when pulling a motorist over for a relatively minor offense: Is this stop really worth the violent confrontation or death that could follow? Even if cops aren’t asking that question, city governments are, and they increasingly are concluding that, no, it’s better to let the offender move on than risk yet another tragedy that undermines public trust in the police.

On April 4 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an officer stopped a Black driver for having a license plate that didn’t match his car. The unarmed driver, Patrick Lyoya, made a series of horrendous decisions that escalated into confrontation. In video, the officer wrestles Lyoya to the ground and straddles his back. He then pulls his gun and shoots Lyoya in the back of the head. A license plate violation effectively yielded a death sentence.

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There are scores of other horrific examples that resulted in the suspect’s death — which is not to suggest that the suspects weren’t at fault. Ideally, police training would be revamped so that officers’ first reaction in tense situations would not be to assume the worst if the suspect seems distrustful of police. Ideally, civilian interaction with police would be so common that trust between both sides would build rather than deteriorate to today’s levels, where some people, particularly Black young men, worry that they could die simply for asserting their rights or feeling they have to run to save their own lives.

Until that magic day arrives, several cities are deciding that the next best thing is for police to stand down from stopping motorists for minor infractions — like, say, a non-functioning turn signal or an expired tag — to avoid potentially deadly escalations. Law enforcers argue that denying police such pretexts eliminates the potential for searches that could lead to discoveries of contraband guns or drugs.

Los Angeles has ordered cops to stop pulling over motorists for minor infractions. The New York Times reports that other cities such as Pittsburgh and Seattle — and the entire state of Virginia — have imposed similar restrictions. Some prosecutors now say that if cops turn up drugs or other contraband during a minor-infraction stop, they won’t bring charges related to the contraband.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones has spent the past year redefining police functions and how to de-escalate situations before they result in tragic outcomes. By all means, police should step up efforts to stop motorists from engaging in the kinds of conduct that puts others’ lives in danger — particularly racing through red lights and speeding. But it’s also worth looking at the experience of other cities to see if their new stand-down policies are yielding positive results.

One thing’s for sure: It’s time to change the dynamic in which a police stop for a broken tail light yields a tragic outcome.

— From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board (TNS).