Like many things related to law enforcement, myths become the foundation for action.
Law enforcement officers are taught that routine traffic stops pose extreme danger to their own lives. Chelsea Whitaker, The Routine Traffic Stop, LAWOFFICER (Nov. 21, 2016) (“There isn’t a more dangerous aspect of policing than traffic stops.”), https://www.lawofficer.com/the-routine-traffic-stop/; Amaury Murgado, How to Approach Traffic Stops, POLICE MAG. (Nov. 26, 2012), https://www.policemag.com/340864/how-to-approach-traffic-stops (“A traffic stop generally has two threat levels [for a police officer]; you are either at risk or at high risk.”) A major problem with such training is that the myth is self-perpetuating: cops are taught traffic stops are more dangerous, so traffic stops do become more dangerous.
But in 2020, there were 120 killings of members of the public in traffic stops by police. Mapping police violence (April 18, 2021), https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/ So the question becomes: who are traffic stops dangerous to?
After review of a comprehensive dataset of thousands of traffic stops that resulted in violence against officers across more than 200 law enforcement agencies in Florida over a 10-year period, it was found that violence against officers was rare and that incidents that do involve violence are typically low risk and do not involve weapons. Under a conservative estimate, the rate for a felonious killing of an officer during a routine traffic stop was only 1 in every 6 .5 million stops, the rate for an assault resulting in serious injury to an officer was only 1 in every 361,111 stops, and the rate for an assault against officers (whether it results in injury or not) was only 1 in every 6,959 stops. Jordan Blair Woods, Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops (Michigan Law Review 2019), https://michiganlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/117MichLRev635_Woods.pdf
Despite this type of data, courts justify cutting back the constitutional rights of the public when in a vehicle. Courts will justify the evisceration of constitutional rights based on data from Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program from the FBI which indicates traffic stops by police are dangerous to the police. See, Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 413 (1997); Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 110 (1977) (per curiam); United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 234 n.5 (1973) (expressly rejecting the argument that traffic violations necessarily involve less danger to officers than other types of confrontations); United States v. Rochin, 662 F.3d 1272, 1273 (10th Cir. 2011) (Gorsuch, J.) (citing 2010 LEOKA statistics); United States v. Holmes, 385 F.3d 786, 791 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (Roberts, J.) (citing 2002 LEOKA statistics); Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Ct. ex rel . County of Humboldt, 59 P.3d 1201, 1205 n.20 (Nev. 2002) (citing 2000 LEOKA statistics), aff’d, 542 U.S. 177 (2004); State v. Sloane, 939 A.2d 796, 802 (N.J. 2008) (citing 2005 LEOKA statistics).
Courts refuse to recognize that a conclusion is only as good as the data cited to support the conclusion. Citing LEOKA statistics to support the idea that traffic stops by police are dangerous to the police have failed to closely examine the LEOKA statistics. As explained by Professor Woods, the LEOKA statistics are wildly overinclusive including routine traffic stops, criminal enforcement stops, and felony vehicle stops for non-traffic-based offenses. This overinclusive classification makes it impossible to tell how many cases involve vehicle stops related to traffic enforcement, criminal enforcement, or both. Jordan Blair Woods at 647.
This over inclusiveness equates a police chase of an armed bank robber leading to the traffic stop the same as a police officer’s stop of a black man with an air freshner in his car. Both of these cases are lumped together under the “traffic pursuits and stops” category, even though a traffic violation was only central in the second case.
It is more accurate to say that “[t]he felony stop is one of the most-common high-risk situations patrol officers find themselves in”. See, Duane Wolfe, 5 Felony Traffic Stop Tactical Tips for Police Officers, POLICEONE.COM: THE WARRIOR’S PATH (Apr. 20, 2015), https://www.police1.com/police-products/vehicles/articles/5-felony-traffic-stop-tactical-tips-for-police-officers-TzW9vQ2b8xi8Ywqi/