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600 Killed By Police in 6 Years In Violence After Traffic Stops

Like a number of recent high-profile cases of police brutality, the fatal encounter between Tyre Nichols and Memphis police officers began with a simple traffic stop.

Nichols is one of hundreds of people, such as Patrick Lyoya, Daunte Wright, Jayland Walker, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and Walter Scott, who were killed after being stopped by police for traffic violations.

Traffic stops are among the most common interactions between police and civilians, and the vast majority of them end uneventfully. Nichols' death highlights the potential for traffic stops to quickly escalate into violent and even fatal struggles — particularly for people of color — in part due how officers are trained, reports USA Today.

"What the encounter shows is just how quickly these encounters can escalate from zero to 100," said University of Arkansas law Prof. Jordan Blair Woods. "It really does raise all sorts of questions about not only just de-escalation tactics during traffic stops and training, but what we're allowing police officers to do in the traffic space to begin with.

On average, police pull over more than 50,000 people daily and more than 20 million annually, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project. Black drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched.

Since 2017, more than 600 people have been killed by police after an initial encounter related to a traffic violation or traffic-related offense, according to Mapping Police Violence.

More than a quarter of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black men and women between 2015 and 2021 occurred during traffic stops, an NPR investigation found.

Part of the reason traffic stops can become violent is because officers are trained to view the routine encounters as "especially dangerous" because they "never know who's going to be behind the wheel," Woods said. His research suggests traffic stops rarely result in random violence, and when they do, it's often because of officers' reactions.

Stops can escalate when officers don't like the way drivers or passengers respond to their commands, a reaction which "is very much tied to perceptions about danger and race," Woods said. He the stop of Nichols, who was Black, noting how officers can be heard yelling multiple commands at him even though he appears to be complying and restrained.

Lauren Bonds of the National Police Accountability Project said this is "something that unfortunately happens a lot where officers are insisting on 100% compliance when they're getting 99%."

Bonds and Woods said that law enforcement, particularly specialized violent crime units like the one linked to Nichols' death, use traffic stops as pretext to search for evidence of other crimes.


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