Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Black drivers are more than twice as likely to get pulled over for investigation than white drivers.
Jaeah LeeApr. 10, 2015 7:20 PM
Police car dashcam footage shows Michael Slager pulling over Walter Scott for a broken brake light.
On Thursday, South Carolina's Law Enforcement Division released the dashcam footage of the moments leading up to officer Michael Slager's fatal shooting of Walter Scott. It opens with Slager following Scott, who was driving a Mercedes-Benz, into a parking lot. They stop, then Slager walks up to Scott's window, asks for his license and registration, and informs him that he was pulled over because of a broken brake light. Slager returns to his car. Moments later, Scott opens his door and runs away. A chase ensues, culminating in Slager firing eight shots and killing Scott.
In the aftermath of Scott's death, little attention has been paid to fact that it was precipitated by a traffic stop. But Scott certainly wasn't the first such encounter to go wrong: Both of the two other fatal police shootings in South Carolina over the past year that led to criminal charges also began with traffic stops. One was for a suspected DUI. The other was for a busted tail light.
A search of news reports from the past decade turns up several other fatal police encounters that began with traffic stops: The deaths of Julio Eddy Perez in Los Angeles in 2008, DeCarlos Moore in Miami in 2010, Noel Polanco in New York City in 2012, Jerame Reid in New Jersey in 2014, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles in 2014, and David Kassick in Pennsylvania this February. (A 1976 traffic stop that nearly killed a black man prompted the Supreme Court to review—and approve—police officers' use of chokeholds.)
So how often do traffic stops turn into police shootings? The short answer is that we don't know. But there's compellingevidence that black drivers are disproportionately likely to get pulled over. The Department of Justice's 2011 Public-Police Contact Survey reported that black and Hispanic drivers were pulled over, ticketed, and searched at higher rates than whites. (It also found that cops used physical force against about 1 percent of drivers pulled over at traffic stops, but didn't specify the drivers' race.)
In 2014, three sociologists at the University of Kansas surveyed more than 2,300 drivers in and around Kansas City. They discovered that while stops over traffic safety violations showed little racial disparity, when it came to stops related to minor violations, like expired license plate stickers, black drivers were pulled over twice as often.
These "investigatory stops" provided what Slate's Jamelle Bouie describes as a "pretext for something more sinister":
In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which are used as pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Sanctioned by courts and institutionalized in most police departments, investigatory stops are aimed at "suspicious" drivers and meant to stop crime, not traffic offenses. And as the authors note, "virtually all of the wide racial disparity in the likelihood of being stopped is concentrated in one category of stops: discretionary stops for minor violations of the law."
The difference between the two kinds of stops is dramatic. Where traffic safety stops are mostly painless (other than tickets), investigatory stops involve searches, impromptu interrogations, and occasionally handcuffs and weapons.
That Walter Scott was driving a Mercedes may not have helped. As the University of Kansas researchers found, an African-American man under 40 had a 36 percent chance of getting pulled over for an investigatory stop in a given year if he drove a domestic luxury car—versus 21 percent for if he drove a non-luxury car. (Scott was 50.)
And there's a growing body of research showing that implicit bias likely played a role in Slager's split-second decision to shoot Scott. But as Bouie points out, racial bias is hardly relevant when it comes to the traffic stop that started their encounter. "What matters is that this universal suspicion is baked into the culture of police departments across the country, such that all kinds of officers—black as well as white—engage in profiling"—an unknown number of which have turned lethal. And so long as that culture persists, Chris Rock's selfies will keep coming.
Anthony Scott holds a photo of himself, center, and his brothers Walter Scott, left, and Rodney Scott, right, at his home near North Charleston, S.C., April 8, 2015.
The family of Walter Scott, the man who died on Saturday after being shot eight times by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, has decided to sue Slager, the city of North Charleston, and its police department. The civil lawsuit, which will seek damages for wrongful death and civil rights violations, follows murder charges already filed against the now-dismised officer.
Scott's family is hardly the first to seek civil damages after a police killing. In recent months, relatives of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner have all pursued civil court claims, where success isn't contingent on a criminal ruling against any police officer. But in the event that the Scott family wins a settlement, it's highly unlikely that Slager himself will have to pay. As I reported in January:
Instead, taxpayers will shoulder the cost. Between 2006 and 2011, New York City paid out $348 million in settlements or judgments in cases pertaining to civil rights violations by police, according to a UCLA study published in June 2014. Those nearly 7,000 misconduct cases included allegations of excessive use of force, sexual assault, unreasonable searches, andfalse arrests. More than 99 percent of the payouts came from the city's municipal budget, which has a line item dedicated to settlements and judgments each year. (The city did require police to pay a tiny fraction of the total damages, with officers personally contributing in less than 1 percent of the cases for a total of $114,000.)
This scenario is typical of police departments across the country, says the study's author Joanna Schwartz, who analyzed records from 81 law enforcement agencies employing 20 percent of the nation's approximately 765,000 police officers. (The NYPD, which is responsible for three-quarters of the cases in the study, employs just over 36,000 officers.) Out of the more than $735 million paid out by cities and counties for police misconduct between 2006 and 2011, government budgets paid more than 99 percent. Local laws indemnifying officers from responsibility for such damages vary, but "there is little variation in the outcome," Schwartz wrote. "Officers almost never pay."
Schwartz's study did not include North Charleston or any other law enforcement agency in South Carolina. But if other jurisdictions serve as any indication, Slager likely won't pay a dime, even if a jury finds him guilty of murdering Scott. Out of the 7,000 cases of police misconduct Schwartz studied, only 700 officers were convicted of a criminal charge. And only 40 officers ever contributed to a civil settlement out of their own pocket.
But data shows that legal consequences for cops who kill remain rare.
Jaeah LeeApr. 8, 2015 5:50 PM
The Reverend Arthur Prioleau holds a sign during a protest in the shooting death of Walter Scott at city hall in North Charleston on Wednesday.
Michael Slager, the North Charleston police officer who on Tuesday was charged with the murder of 50-year-old Walter Scott, is one of at least three white officers in South Carolina over the past year to be charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man. The South Carolina cases, all of which are ongoing, seem to stand in contrast to proceedings around recent high-profile killings by police in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland, including the swift reaction by authorities in North Charleston to harrowing footage of Scott's killing that surfaced Tuesday. "I have watched the video and I was sickened by what I saw," police chief Eddie Driggers told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday, not long after the city's mayor announced Slager's firing.
But data shows that the response to Slager's case is a rare exception. Between 2010 and 2014, according to Columbia, South Carolina's the State newspaper, at least 209 suspects were shot at by police in South Carolina, including 79 people who died. In only three of the 209 cases were officers investigated for misuse of force, and none have been convicted. Among the suspects killed, 34 were black and 41 were white (in four cases the suspect's race is unclear), and about half of all suspects shot were black, according to the data gathered by the State.
This mirrors what we know about the national landscape, although data on officer-involved shootings is far from comprehensive and broad patterns are difficult to discern. As Mother Jones has reported previously, officer-involved killings seldom lead to a charge, let alone a conviction. L. Chris Stewart, an attorney representing the Scott family, told the Los Angeles Times he believed that the video was the only reason Slager is facing charges.
The video from South Carolina, says a criminal-justice expert, "makes it almost impossible to claim that the victim was resisting arrest with violence."
There are key differences between the eyewitness video from Scott's case in North Charleston and the one that captured Eric Garner's death in New York, says Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The video of Scott's shooting "makes it almost impossible to claim that the victim was resisting arrest with violence," she says, or to suggest that the victim's general state of physical health caused his death, as police did in Garner's case. The video makes clear that Scott was running away when he was gunned down, she says. "So, where is the threat that would justify such a violent police response?"
Here are the two other recent cases in South Carolina:
In what appears to be a coincidence of timing, on Tuesday a grand jury in North Augusta charged police officer Justin Craven for the February 2014 shooting of Earnest Satterwhite Sr., a 68-year-old black man who'd driven away after Craven tried to stop him for a traffic violation. A prosecutor had sought to charge Craven with voluntary manslaughter, but the grand jury reduced the charge to a misdemeanor: firing a gun at an occupied vehicle. According toa report from the Associated Press, Satterwhite had been arrested and convicted multiple times for traffic violations, including DUIs, but he had no record of violence nor physical altercations with police on his criminal record.
In December 2014, a grand jury indicted former Eutawville police chief Richard Combs for murder in the May 2011 shooting death of 54-year-old Bernard Bailey. Combs had issued Bailey's daughter a traffic ticket, and when Bailey went to the town hall to contest it, he and Combs got into a physical altercation. Combs shot Bailey twice in the chest. The US Justice Department cleared Combs of criminal wrongdoing in 2013, but last August, after Eutawville agreed to pay a $400,000 wrongful-death settlement to Bailey's family, a local prosecutor brought the murder case to the grand jury.
Tennessee has joined a list that includes 17 states.
Jaeah LeeApr. 8, 2015 6:15 AM
Guns kill more people than cars do in a growing number of states, according to a new analysis of national mortality data from the Violence Policy Center. The report finds that in 2013, firearm-related deaths exceeded those caused by motor vehicles in 17 states and the District of Columbia. This means that four more states have crossed this threshold since 2012, including Louisiana, Missouri, Virginia, and Tennessee. In Nashville this Friday, the National Rifle Association opens the doors to its 144th annual convention.
The Violence Policy Center's report is the latest among severalstudies indicating that guns are soon likely to surpass cars as America's "top killing machine." While traffic safety regulations have helped reduce the number of motor-vehicle-related deaths over the years, the report notes that the number of deaths caused by firearms has been creeping up, as the chart below shows. That's noteworthy in part because about90 percent of American households own a car, but less than a third of American households own guns.
A new Justice Department report details the use of deadly force by Philly police officers.
Jaeah LeeMar. 24, 2015 6:00 AM
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey holds the DOJ report during a news conference on Monday.
Philadelphia, a city with a vastly smaller population than that of New York City, has seen a much higher rate of police shootings in recent years. According to a new report published on Monday by the US Department of Justice, police violence disproportionately affects Philadelphia's black community, and officers don't receive consistent training on the department's deadly force policy.
The 174-page report results from an investigation the DOJ launched in 2013 at the request of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, during a time when officer-involved shootings, including fatal incidents, were on the rise, even as violent crimes and assaults against the police was on the decline. "Police carry baggage and lack legitimacy in some communities," Ramsey, who has been appointed to chair the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, recently told the New York Times. "And for us to change the paradigm, we have to understand why we are viewed in this way."
The DOJ's Philadelphia investigation, which examined nearly 400 deadly force incidents between 2007 and 2013, provides a rare close-up of the patterns of officer-involved shootings. The report follows on the heels of another damning report the DOJ published on the city of Ferguson, where federal investigators found systematic racial discrimination among public officials and police.
While it's nearly impossible to know how much the findings in Philadelphia represent police practices across the country—there is no comprehensive national data on police officers' use of force, as we reported last year—the DOJ probe does reveal an alarming rate of shootings when compared to other large departments. Philadelphia's police force, which is one-fifth the size of the NYPD, saw dozens more officer shootings resulting in deaths and injuries than those by the NYPD over the same period.
Here are a few key findings from Monday's report:
In a city where blacks and whites each make up about 45 percent of the population, almost 60 percent of the officers involved in shootings between 2007 and 2013 were white, while 81 percent of suspects involved were black.
Black suspects were the most likely to get shot because of a misidentified object. White suspects were the most likely to be involved in a physical altercation that resulted in the officer shooting.
Among officer-involved shootings in which the victim was black, black and Hispanic officers were more likely than their white counterparts to have shot at a suspect after mistaking a plain object for a gun.
While the overall number of officer-involved shootings declined between 2007 and 2013, the share of victims who were unarmed during those incidents more than tripled, from 6 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2013.
Officers initiated the encounter in 43 percent of officer-involved shootings in 2013, down from nearly 60 percent in 2007 and nearly 70 percent in 2008.
Out of 382 suspects involved in the shootings between 2007 and 2013, about 88 were killed, 180 injured, and 115 unharmed. The majority of suspects brandished a weapon but did not shoot, held a weapon other than a firearm, or were unarmed. Forty-nine suspects (13 percent) shot at the officer, injuring six and killing one.
The average time spent on investigating an officer involved shooting has declined from 417 days in 2007 to 264 days in 2013.
Out of 88 officers who were found to have violated department policy during a shooting incident, 73 percent were not suspended or terminated. Some interviewees told the Justice Department they believed that the department's board of inquiry undermined findings from internal reviews of officer shootings, resulting in "too little discipline."