My colleague who shares my office is black. Most of my co-workers are black. Detroit is a black majority city (almost 83% at last check).
This morning, my colleague told me about getting pulled over, twice, the day before. Her son attends a private school in a suburb of Detroit, and each day she provides him transportation. On the way to the school in the afternoon, she was pulled over for speeding next to a college (where the speed limit inexplicably drops to 20 from a 55). Fair enough.
Later that day, she was driving home with her son and infant daughter. She was on the freeway, in the right lane, driving slowly because of the earlier ticket. She was pulled over, and the police behind her turned on their spotlights and loudspeakers, ordering her to roll down her windows and put her hands outside the vehicle. Two more state police vehicles pulled up within seconds, and four policemen approached her car with guns drawn; after berating her for not lowering her windows fully (on a 40 degree day with a 10-month old baby in the car), they issued a ticket and told her to come to court for it to be thrown out.
Her crime? Tinted windows. Which are completely see-through. Which were put in by her father, when he owned the vehicle.
Did I mention her father is a police officer?
Police no doubt have an image of who is driving a red Impala with tinted windows. They have thoughts about who drives from Warren to Detroit, and why that trip is made.
Traffic stops are scary for cops. There is always the chance someone can be dangerous. However, most fatalities from traffic stops are from other vehicles on the road; of the 149 officers who died in the line of duty in 2014, 57 were traffic stop related, but only eight were killed by firearms during a traffic stop.*
Terror connects police and civilians. Police worry they will be killed by a dangerous civilian, but know if someone kills a police offer, the full weight of law enforcement will be upon them. Civilians worry if they put a finger wrong, they will be killed without compunction or punishment.
Police may feel they are under siege, against a groundswell of public opposition. People of color, in the wrong neighborhoods, driving the wrong cars, have felt under siege for decades.
Civilians are killed at about 21.5% the rate of police. So far this year, about 922 civilians were killed by the police. About 100 police officers were killed in the same period. You’re almost 10 times a likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than vice versa.
And it’s likely the numbers are far greater; statistics about police violence are notoriously unreliable.
Any number of deaths is likely too many. I’m sure some of these deaths are justifiable homicide. And it’s horrendous that people die in the line of duty, many of whom are likely good cops doing the right things.
But the numbers don’t lie. Police approaching normal, routine events as if they are life-or-death situations leads to unnecessary killing, increases civilian anger with law enforcement, and actually makes cops less safe; as people get angrier, the violence against the police will grow.
Both sides need to stand down. But the ones with the legally sanctioned right to kill need to start.
*(In 2012, over 4,000 officers were wounded/assaulted during traffic stops)