“Can you prosecute a police officer for a killing at a vehicle stop?” asked Mr. Gill, the Salt Lake County prosecutor.
“Theoretically, you can. But practically it becomes virtually impossible.”
“Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and the combination is volatile,” he said.
“In fact,…an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million, excluding accidents, two studies have shown.
At stops for common traffic infractions, the odds are as low as 1 in 6.5 million.”
“Open the door now, you are going to get shot!” an officer in Rock Falls, Ill., shouted at Nathaniel Edwards after a car chase.
“Hands out the window now or you will be shot!” yelled a patrolman in Bakersfield, Calif., as Marvin Urbina wrestled with inflated airbags after a pursuit ended in a crash.
“I am going to shoot you — what part of that don’t you understand?” threatened an officer in Little Rock, Ark., adding a profanity, as she tried to pry James Hartsfield from his car.
The police officers who issued those warnings had stopped the motorists for common offenses…[y]et within moments of pulling them over, officers fatally shot all three.
The deaths are among a series of seemingly avoidable killings across the United States. Over the past five years, a New York Times investigation found, police officers have killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife, or under pursuit for a violent crime — a rate of more than one a week.
Most of the officers did so with impunity. Only five have been convicted of crimes in those killings, …[y]et local governments paid at least $125 million to resolve about 40 wrongful-death lawsuits and other claims.
Many stops began with common traffic violations like broken taillights or running a red light;
relative to the population, Black drivers were overrepresented among those killed.
Here are key findings from the investigation:
The recurrence of such cases and the rarity of convictions both follow from an overstatement, ingrained in court precedents and police culture, of the danger that vehicle stops pose to officers. Claiming a sense of mortal peril — whether genuine in the moment or only asserted later — has often shielded officers from accountability for using deadly force.
“We get into what I would call anticipatory killings,” said Sim Gill, the district attorney for Salt Lake County, Utah. “We can’t give carte blanche to that.”
…In case after case, officers said they had feared for their lives. And in case after case, prosecutors declared the killings of unarmed motorists legally justifiable.
But The Times reviewed video and audio recordings, prosecutor statements and court documents, finding patterns of questionable police conduct that went beyond recent high-profile deaths of unarmed drivers. Evidence often contradicted the accounts of law enforcement officers.
Dozens of encounters appeared to turn on what criminologists describe as officer-created jeopardy: Officers regularly — and unnecessarily — placed themselves in danger by standing in front of fleeing vehicles or reaching inside car windows, then fired their weapons in what they later said was self-defense.
Frequently, officers also appeared to exaggerate the threat.
In many cases, local police officers, state troopers or sheriff’s deputies responded with outsize aggression to disrespect or disobedience — a driver talking back, revving an engine or refusing to get out of a car, what officers sometimes call “contempt of cop.”
[half dozen examples follow]
…Some families of the drivers said that their relatives were not blameless. “I don’t have my head buried in the sand,” said Deborah Lilly, whose 29-year-old son, Tyler Hays, had drugs in his car and tried to run away when he was pulled over for tinted windows last year by a sheriff’s deputy in Hamilton County, Tenn. “I am just saying he did not deserve to get shot in the back.”
Advocates for the police argue that the dangers of stopping cars require readiness to use deadly force. …“What are you going to do? Are you going to be indicted, or are you going to be buried?”
Traffic stops are by far the most common police encounters with civilians, and officers have reason to be wary in their approach: They don’t know who is inside a car or whether there are weapons.
Ten officers have been killed this year in such interactions, including a Chicago officer who was shot in August by a passenger during a traffic stop for an expired registration.
But some police chiefs and criminologists said that alarmist training about vehicle stops has made officers too quick to shoot at times, resulting in needless killings. Academies and commanding officers often rely on misleading statistics, gory cop-killing videos and simulated worst-case scenarios to instill hypervigilance.
The overemphasis on danger has fostered tolerance for police misconduct at vehicle stops, some argue.
“Prosecutors and courts give more leeway to officers’ decisions to use force at vehicle stops, as a result of the exaggerated concern about the potential for officers getting hurt,” said Michael Gennaco, a consultant to police departments on officer accountability and a former Justice Department prosecutor.
“Officers would likely kill fewer drivers if there were deterrence.”
Trainers and tactical guides typically emphasize that vehicle stops account for more killings of officers than almost any other type of interaction.
But the assertions about the heightened danger ignore the context: Vehicle stops far outnumber every other kind of police dealings with civilians.
In fact, because the police pull over so many cars and trucks — tens of millions each year — an officer’s chances of being killed at any vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million, excluding accidents, two studies have shown.
At stops for common traffic infractions, the odds are as low as 1 in 6.5 million, according to a 2019 study by Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas.
“The risk is statistically negligible, but nonetheless it is…amplified,” said Mr. Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney and an outspoken proponent of increased police accountability.
State laws generally prohibit police officers from using lethal force unless they reasonably believe it necessary to prevent imminent death or serious injury.
Departments have increasingly instructed officers to let suspected lawbreakers drive away and find them later, avoiding the risks of potential confrontation or a high-speed pursuit. “You have the guy’s car license plate and you know where he lives,” said Scott Bieber, the chief of police in Walla Walla, Wash. “You go get him in 45 minutes at his house and add a charge of eluding.”
Many of the fatal vehicle stops reviewed by The Times unfolded in a similar way: Officers acted as if their lives were in constant peril, and killed drivers who failed to obey orders.
“The fear is excessive,” said Grant Fredericks, an authority on the forensic analysis of dash- and body-camera footage and a former officer who has examined scores of police shootings at vehicle stops. “The more fear officers feel, the more aggressive they become.”
But no degree of fright, he said, explained the approach of some officers, who often threatened or used deadly force in response to mere defiance.
“The reaction sometimes seems to be, ‘How dare you?” Mr. Fredericks said. “‘How dare you not do what you’re told to do?’”
Among those killed, some became icons of the Black Lives Matter movement, …But relatives of many others also questioned whether race played a role in their deaths.
In 2017, a white officer in Kent, Wash., told investigators that he had stopped a Honda Accord in part because its young Black occupants seemed afraid of him; one “had a scared look on his face.”
The officer pulled over the car for a canceled registration, and the driver, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, a 20-year-old community college student, sped off. A second officer shot him. Although prosecutors deemed the shooting justified, a civil court judge questioned whether the officers had faced any real threat, and the city of Kent this year paid the driver’s family $4.4 million to settle a wrongful-death suit.
Kalfani Ture, a criminologist at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland and a former Georgia police officer who is Black, said overstating the risks compounded racial bias. “Police think ‘vehicle stops are dangerous’ and ‘Black people are dangerous,’ and the combination is volatile,” he said.
The problem is especially acute at so-called pretextual stops, he argued, where officers seek out minor violations — expired registration, a dangling air freshener, tinted windows — to search a car they consider suspicious.
“We fish,” Dr. Ture said, recalling his past work as a policeman. “If I follow a car for five minutes, I can always find one or two moving violations.”
“Can you prosecute a police officer for a killing at a vehicle stop?” asked Mr. Gill, the Salt Lake County prosecutor. “Theoretically, you can. But practically it becomes virtually impossible.”
The legal standard, he said, “overwhelmingly errs on the side of sheltering police misconduct.”
Although protests since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year appear to have spurred a modest uptick in criminal charges against officers, the police continue to claim special allowances for the use of force at vehicle stops.
A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings have expanded the powers and protections of officers pulling over cars, including a 1997 decision holding that the police “must routinely exercise unquestioned command of the situation” because of the unpredictable dangers, and a 2014 decision allowing the police to shoot at moving cars.
“You watch the movies about bank robberies, you know, it happens all the time,” Justice Antonin Scalia said during oral arguments, asserting the practice was standard. “Are these movies unrealistic?”
Even in instances of officer-created jeopardy — the police putting their lives at risk and then citing that risk to justify killing a driver — half the federal appeals courts tell judges and juries to look only at the final moment when a trigger is pulled, ignoring officers’ earlier choices, said Cynthia Lee, a law professor at George Washington University. The results are “arbitrary and inconsistent,” she said.
In more than 150 formal statements or public comments declining to bring charges, some prosecutors emphasized that the legal standard tied their hands, regardless of whether a killing was avoidable. Many others focused on the faults of the drivers, such as their criminal records or drug use.
Questions as to whether the use of force in any particular case could have been avoided or de-escalated if the law enforcement officer(s) or citizen(s) had behaved differently in the moments leading up to the fatal use-of- force may not be properly addressed in a criminal investigation.