Tuesday Talk*: Vanishingly Rare

The killing of Daunte Wright, on the heels of the needlessly aggressive actions of officers who stopped Lt. Caron Nazario, during the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, is a “perfect storm.” For what, however, varies wildly.

Is this the moment to revisit whether police should be involved in traffic stops at all? They are too easily abused as pretext stops. The legal justifications range from trivial nonsense that could be better handled by non-police, indeed, cameras, although they too have significant problems that seem to elude those arguing for alternatives. And drunk drivers, dangerous vehicles, harm others. There’s a long list of concerns which are serious when they’re on the front burner, and insignificant when another problem is front and center.

For one representative in Congress, this storm proves her priors.

Even though Tlaib is off-the-charts crazy in a Marjorie Taylor Greene sort of way, there is a point  held tightly in her simplistic grasp: There remains an enduring cultural belief that black people are prone to crime and violence, thus making cops take a more aggressive posture as a matter of self-protection. Cops perceive greater risk when the driver is black, which justifies a more defensive and aggressive course of action, which escalates tensions, confuses and guides reactions. A hand movement by a sweet white granny isn’t a threat. A furtive gesture by a black 20-year-old is as close to the glint of steel a cop is prepared to suffer.

Police are trained as to the inherent dangers of a car stop. They don’t know who is in the car, whether they’re armed, whether they have unknown issues, drugs, guns or warrants, that will become apparent during the stop and substantially change the dynamic. The tags may be expired, which is no big deal, but the driver may be wanted for murder and perhaps he’s not inclined to have the officer know who he is.

As Radley Balko points out, these may be real concerns, but the likelihood of a cop being killed during a car stop is “vanishingly rare.”

These numbers, of course, cut both ways. Cops are trained to believe that every car stop could be their last, and they enter into the engagement with that mindset, shoot or die, even though the probability of any harm coming to them as negligible. The counter argument, of course, is that it does happen and nobody wants to die for a job. The counter argument to this, as someone will compulsively point out, is that police officers don’t make the top 10 20 deadliest occupations. The counter argument to this is that trees don’t try to kill lumberjacks.

The flip side of these statistics is that many are laboring under the misconception that police are slaughtering unarmed black people in the streets at will. Except there aren’t 10,000 unarmed black men killed by police every year. Not 1000 nor 100. In 2019, the number was 27. The same 30 million stops annually and yet only 27 unarmed black men are killed by police, and that 27 isn’t limited to car stops. Then again, these are deaths, not beatings, not needlessly aggressive, offensive, improper and unconstitutional stops. A car stop isn’t acceptable only because no one died. Offensive police conduct doesn’t disappear because it wasn’t caught on camera or ended without bloodshed.

“Perfect storms” such as the one at hand give rise to gross exaggeration and hysteria, beliefs that make it impossible to step back, take a deep breath, and see very real problems in the cold, harsh life of reality. Without identifying the real problem(s), we are doomed to seek fantasy solutions which will fail to fix what’s wrong and give rise to cures that may be worse than the disease.

This moment in time could be the worst possible to try to focus on the real problems in need of redress and reform, as tensions and feelings are high, erroneous beliefs are absolute, and the loudest voices too often take the most absurd or simplistic positions, to the adoration of their mindless sycophants. Yet, these are the moments when people demand that something be done and, for better or worse, government does something. Before any solution can be considered, the problem must be identified. Is there a problem? What is the problem? Are there many problems, conflicts and value choices of whose life matters more?

Try, please, not to pound your tribe’s obvious bias, but to consider that everyone is a living, breathing human being who wants to make it home for dinner.

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

50 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Vanishingly Rare

  1. B. McLeod

    In this particular case, the bizarre weapons confusion factor really separates this from instances where officers act out of concern for their safety.

    They stopped Wright because his registration was expired, and the states use police to collect their vehicle taxes.
    Then, they saw the ancillary air freshener violation, which exists because of the drive to criminalize trivial things. Then, they found out about an outstanding warrant. No indication in the early reports what it was for. The decision to apprehend Wright at that point would be typical, maybe even required by department policy. None of the foregoing is unusual. None of it would have raised an eyebrow anywhere if not for the freakish occurrence of a 26-year police veteran confusing her weapons and unintentionally shooting Wright.

    Whether there is or isn’t qualified immunity doesn’t matter here. This was an almost inexplicable error, and not an intentional reaction to perceived threat. If someone were serious about changing the world to prevent this case, the three best fixes would have been: 1) don’t use police to collect vehicle taxes; 2) don’t pass stupid laws that criminalize random, petty shit; and. 3) don’t require officers to apprehend on every outstanding warrant, particularly if it is tied to a slight underlying offense and the suspect is not creating a present danger to the public.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Who, I wondered while writing this post, will be the first to focus on the idiosyncratic details of this one case and thus ignore the bigger issue, emboldening the puny-minded to deal only with concrete details rather than policy issues? Who would be that person? WHO?!?

      Reply
      1. B. McLeod

        Of course, even where the immediate cause of the gunfire is different, removing the preceding steps that caused the stop and attempt to apprehend would still be helpful.

        Reply
    2. Richard Parker

      ” . . . don’t pass stupid laws that criminalize random, petty shit . . .”

      I’m on board but every special interest group wants their own petty stupid law passed and enforced.

      Reply
  2. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    Regarding police officers (I take it), you ask provocatively: Is there a problem in their treatment of black people? The answer, of course, is “yes.” But only generational change, not any specific policy change (like having meter maids do traffic stops), will result in fewer unnecessary shooting of blacks by cops.

    From this old geezer’s perch, time, not policy change, heals all–the the arc of justice, don’t you know. Changes are likely to do nothing or, worse, cause harm. This is because the great majority of the proponents of change in police practices have agenda’s unrelated to improving police practices. They are often dumb too. Ms. Rashida Tlaib, a lawyer-Congress woman graduated from Cooley Law School and quoted by you in this post, fits into both categories. She is the perfect exemplar.

    All the best.

    RGK

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      For years, I argued that change in police culture has to come from within. Cops don’t believe anyone understand what they do and have a knee-jerk reaction to any outsider (and often, their own brass) telling them otherwise. So your next gen solution has some merit. But then, older cops tell me that younger cops are more easily scared, less capable of taking a punch and more inclined to react too quickly and too aggressively for their own protection. This suggests that while the next gen might be more inclined to see beyond race as a justification for assuming black people are more prone to crime and violence, they might also be more inclined toward creating the escalation problems that produce tragic outcomes because they’re softer than their elder cops, and just aren’t willing to take any risks.

      Reply
      1. Hunting Guy

        As a start, recruit ex-military. It’s been stated here and elsewhere that combat experience makes for for calmer cops.

        Reply
        1. LY

          And then take away all the cool military toys we’ve been giving the police. Do they really need MRAPs to serve a missed appearance warrent?

          Reply
  3. RCJP

    Two toughts:

    First, while traffic stops have a low mathematical rate of getting cops killed, that doesn’t really portray the actual risk. Of the 1000 or so people killed by police annually, a fair number would have been cop killers, many on such stops, had they not been killed first. Yes, policing is safer in terms of lethality now. In the 80s cops were killed at 2-3 times the current number. Focusing on the number of dead cops in terms of risk is a bit like saying “well, we cut the number of lumberjack deaths, they don’t need those hardhats and ropes any more.”

    Second, behind every law is a story. Are airfeshener stops a pretext? Most likely are. But the law is about windshield obstructions. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the tragedies that underly such rules. So, if we don’t want kids run over by people who can’t see adequately, at what point do we decide a dangly thing is too big? And then what if the guy with a dangly one-centimeter too big has warrants and doesn’t want to go to jail? Because people will always have warrants. And some of them will always fight.

    Reply
    1. Sgt. Schultz

      The question isn’t whether there are excuses. The question is how to do better. You offer no answers.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous Coward

    My take is that police officers live in constant terror of being ambushed and are obsessed with dominating every situation which leads to lots of screaming, beating and shooting. If police officers were the courageous public servants their propaganda described instead of weak kneed bullies these incidents would not happen. Also, as usual qualified immunity, kid glove treatment after shootings, and command presence need to go the way of the dodo. If assaulting and killing citizens had real consequences instead paid vacations police officers would be better behaved

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I really wish people had a better grasp of what QI does and what abolishing it would do. I appreciate that certain advocates have been pandering their ass off and spewing simplistic and dishonest claims, but jeez, this is a law blog and it pains me to have that level of idiocy in my comments.

      Reply
      1. Lee Keller King

        The only thing that eliminating Qualified Immunity would do to deter future rights’ violations would be to cause the city/county/state to pick up the tab if the plaintiff can get a jury award reduced to judgment. The cop who actually violated the victim’s rights wouldn’t pay a penny to the victim.

        At least, that’s what I saw as a personal injury attorney doing such cases, back in the day. The governmental entity (or its insurer) would take the monetary fall, not the officer. The only deterrence to the officer would be any repercussions suffered from his superiors.

        Reply
    2. Rengit

      Since TT rules are in effect, I am not sure how abolishing QI for cops, or even just severely curtailing it, would solve many problems. QI in many cases is a judge-made doctrine extended to all government officials and civil servants, not just the police, and is a recognition that low-level beat cops, elementary school vice principals, and DMV managers aren’t at once prosecutors, defense attorneys, and constitutional scholars with an encyclopedic, photographic knowledge of state, local, and federal codes. Without it, we’ll likely get exclusively what Learned Hand predicted we’d get, people who are zealous fanatics or people who are so reckless and feckless in their duties that they don’t care about being sued personally.

      So if we take QI away from the police, presumably other people will pick up the slack of enforcing traffic laws, detaining unruly students, visiting mentally ill people; do the social workers, school resource officers, traffic camera programmers, etc, get QI when their efforts to enforce laws, rules, and regulations go wrong? What about when they have to call in the police for back up? Are the police really going to want to show up when the government official calling for their help has QI, but the police personally don’t?

      Reply
    3. burban

      To AC’s point, on the Grits For Breakfast blog today there is a paragraph about Austin (TX) police training. Training at the APD academy has been criticized in an independent review for being overly militarized. The response from APD? “APD leadership has expressed its belief to Kroll that a paramilitary structure is an essential component of police culture.”

      Reply
  5. Jake

    I propose all officers, for their entire career, must attend twice-weekly training on coping with fear and rationalized risk assessment in an individual and group setting. I’d call it therapy but there’s probably some legal problem with forcing people into therapy for a job.

    Reply
      1. Jake

        That had not crossed my mind but I think you may be on to something there. LEOs should probably go back to more formal uniforms and fancy hats. The paramilitary gear is clearly not contributing to a healthy relationship with the public.

        Reply
        1. SHG Post author

          That was one of Radley’s takeaways in his book, dress cops up as storm troopers and they behave like storm troopers.

          Reply
          1. RCJP

            That’s something I think Balko is actually sort of correct about. Casual (jeans and jackets and cloth badges) dress in unmarked cars leads to a casual approach to a very solemn business. What seems like bright lines to the uninitiated become fuzzy when dealt with routinely. The formalities of impinging rights are easily glossed over when handled in casual Friday atmosphere.

            Related, the adoption of tactical gear by beat cops creates perceptions. But, that gear, especially vests, are not mere fashion trends Balko would have readers believe. Do you want cops prepared to rush into a grocery store with an active shooter or not? Well, no, not all the time, some would say. Alas, such events are unscheduled, and so you risk having them unprepared if they’re not always prepared.

            Unfortunately, most people saying such things blatantly care not if cops get killed as a result. “Militarization” is only a blanket problem if you don’t think (or don’t care) that the ballistics of a gun are just as lethal on an American street as an Afghan hillside. (And, BTW, cops face huge tactical disadvantages compared to the military).

            A brighter line between special tactical teams and regular beat cops (especially in optics) would be beneficial. But, the fact is, folks like Balko really the don’t want optics changed, they want the capability eliminated. Except for situations like Boulder. And the Pulse night club. And North Hollywood. And literally every other time it’s been vital.

            *Standard reminder: Balko admits he wrote a 400-page book on SWAT without a single moment of observation of any kind of police work, including SWAT teams. And, he frequently gets objective facts about SWAT tactics and development absolutely wrong.

            Reply
            1. SHG Post author

              Seems like I’ve heard this song from you before?

              The better question is do we need cops prepared for any eventuality at all times. The answer seems to be not if it contributes to needless violence and they can’t control their aggression. To a large extent, the answer is up to cops. Officer, police thyself.

            2. Jake

              All the Officers in the town I grew up in wore dress blues and some wore ballistic vests. These are not mutually exclusive outfitting choices.

  6. Joseph Masters

    “Vanishingly Rare” is an interesting way to put American police use of violence in a “fun with statistics” sort of way–27 dead unarmed people in a year is commensurate with the total number of dead killed per capita by police forces in Europe or our peers in Asia. Clearly, these police forces have extensive experience with traffic stops, yet the number of dead per capita in our peer countries is vanishingly small.

    It is the 1,000+ that American police kill every year under all circumstances is far out of proportion in comparison to OECD countries. Most peer countries also eschew the British tendency to employ a majority of officers that aren’t trained and equipped to use firearms. German, Italian and Japanese police officers are all armed with pistols at a minimum, and the same goes for constables in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada. What appears to be vanishingly small becomes a major outlier when the data set is expanded globally.

    Nor are firearms as restricted as often thought in peer countries. The Schengen Agreement has the side effect of making European firearms regulations the dictate of more permissive nations such as Austria and Belgium, to say the least of former Warsaw Pact nations, so at base police forces in our peer group face similar challenges as Americans. Yet American violence definitely stands out.

    Unfortunately, this is likely a long-term effect of the Nuremberg and Japanese War Crimes Trials. The immense complicity of German, Italian and Japanese police; either employed directly or as Einsantsgruppen until 1945, made tolerance of state violence much less tolerable after VE and VJ-Day. Unfortunate only in the sense that breaking such cycles of violence required the direct effect of killing millions and imposing this new paradigm from without.

    But nevertheless the same reckoning is upon the United States. Increasingly American police employment of violence is being viewed as illegitimate, and such a reckoning historically breeds mass protest and insurrection the world over. There are probably only two end points to this: the Nuremberg Laws, or the Nuremberg Courts.

    Reply
    1. RCJP

      So, US cops killed 1000 people last year. I saw a report that UK cops killed 4.

      You may say that’s shocking.

      US criminals murdered 45 cops by gunfire alone last year. UK criminals killed exactly 1. He was the only one killed in the last three years. In 2017 there was one other, killed in a terror attack on parliament.

      Would you say that’s shocking?

      Now, you may say shooting any number of unarmed people is barbaric. But I question that what blame you would place on whom — who would you label “barbaric” — in this case involving an unarmed naked man?

      Yes, it’s just one incident. But so was each of the 27.

      https://youtu.be/oTQr_lKg_wg

      Reply
    2. SHG Post author

      I am constantly astounded by your capacity to use so many words to say nothing worthwhile and yet bore the living shit out of me. I just wish you would share your talents with the rest of the world instead of here.

      Reply
  7. TeeJaw

    This was a felony stop not an traffic stop. Police ordered the suspect to get out of the car. He refused at first, then did. Then he got back into the car where he had a gun which the cops already knew about and/or they saw the gun. That raised the tensions, as it always does and should. If Duante had cooperated with the cops and had not started a fight with them, he would not have been injured, much less killed.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Me: This post absolutely, positively isn’t about Wright’s stop.
      You: So let’s talk specifically about Wright’s stop.
      Why do I bother with comments?

      Reply
  8. CotB

    The common denominator in these lethal force cases is resisting a police officer. The person may be resisting arrest, resisting a request to show hands, or simply resisting a request to get out of the car, but every one of these cases involve non-compliance that escalates to coercion to sometimes lethal actions.

    At what point of resistance do the reformers and the public at large want the police to simple say “never mind” and allow the resisters to go on about their business?

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      If only we didn’t have that handful of cases every year where there’s no resistance and yet the cops still beat or kill somebody. Just as cops come into a stop with their attitude, these scenarios inform citizens that compliance is no guarantee that they’ll survive. At what point do cops deal with the beaters and killers in their own ranks?

      Reply
    2. Hunting Guy

      CotB.

      “ At what point of resistance do the reformers and the public at large want the police to simple say “never mind” and allow the resisters to go on about their business?”

      Don’t we already have an example in Portland?

      Reply
  9. RCJP

    We certainly don’t want them prepared for all things at all times. Just the stuff covered in the last post-mortem of an event for which they were outrageously unprepared.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      This seems like it was a reply to something. Just as tragedies are always going to happen, no matter what the law says, so too is unpreparedness unless you drive around in a tank. Be prepared for the norm, not the outlier. Or just be a whole lot better at not letting preparedness make you overly aggressive or violent. But you can’t protect your ass for the sake of preparedness at the expense of someone else’s ass because “oops, sorry for being too aggressive.”

      Reply
  10. Darwin Rules

    Natural selection has worked forever so we should stand back and allow Mother Nature do some culling

    1. Police for 30 days, across the country, are relieved from duty (paid vacation, sick time, remedial training, whatever)
    2. Public goes wild, anarchy, massive deaths from civilians going at it mano a mano [or perhaps Rashida Tlaib is right and we all get along swimmingly (/sarc)]

    Survival of the fittest: those who are fit make it, those that don’t, follow the science

    Chances of liberals still think police aren’t worth a chit after the 30 days? WGAF

    Reply
  11. Brian Cowles

    “The same 30 million stops annually and yet only 27 unarmed black men are killed by police, and that 27 isn’t limited to car stops.”

    A warning, which you have probably already figured out from comments you’ve trashed – the above sentence is implicitly comparing apples (traffic stops of all races per year) with oranges (unarmed black men killed by police per year). It may not be law, but sentences like that make people stupider.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      Not having trashed any comments (not that you would have a clue), this is a peculiarly aggressive way to make your point. You’re right that the comparison is indirect, which is why I’ve provided all the information to let a reader know, but since I don’t have the stats to make a better comparison, I work with what I have. On the other hand, it makes no one stupider as the point still holds, even if the comparison is not entirely apt. Still, a pretty assholish comment.

      Reply
      1. Brian Cowles

        You’re right, and I am sorry – it was not my intent to be an asshole. I will do better next time.

        Reply
    2. Miles

      The point is obvious, as is the detail that makes it clear that although these are statistics about different things, if cops were slaughtering black drivers regularly, the latter number would be in the thousands, tens of thousands, rather than 27 total, only a share of which relates to traffic stops.

      If you thought people were so stupid as not grasp this, you could have pointed this out. Instead, you chose to be accusatory, wrong and, as Scott notes, an asshole about it.

      Reply
  12. Richard Parker

    I taught a number of classes as a adjunct faculty at a local university. Many of my students were ex-military or current law enforcement.

    After class one night, I asked a male law enforcement student, off the record. if confrontations between the police and the public were increasing or decreasing. He struck me as a sober, clear headed, and experienced fellow.

    His quick answer was that “Yes, it is becoming more confrontational.”

    The reason: “Female officers are, in general, smaller and weaker so are not respected on the street. They tend to bluff and The Street calls them on it. The disrespect spills over to the male officers, particularly if they are backing up female partners.”

    “This is 100% off the record. I will deny this if ever asked. Even though most male officers agree me, it is career suicide to say anything negative about female offices.”

    Reply

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