This Article presents findings from the largest and most comprehensive study to date on violence against the police during traffic stops. Every year, police officers conduct tens of millions of traffic stops. Many of these stops are entirely unremarkable--so much so that they may be fairly described as routine. Nonetheless, the narrative that routine traffic stops are fraught with grave and unpredictable danger to the police permeates police training and animates Fourth Amendment doctrine. This Article challenges this dominant danger narrative and its centrality within key institutions that regulate the police.
The presented study is the first to offer an estimate for the danger rates of routine traffic stops to law enforcement officers. I reviewed 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. The findings reveal 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.
This Article is also the first to offer a comprehensive typology of violence against the police during traffic stops. The typology indicates that a narrow set of observable contextual factors precedes most of this violence--most commonly, signs of flight or intoxication. The typology further reveals important qualitative differences regarding violence during traffic stops initiated for only traffic enforcement versus criminal enforcement.
The study has significant implications for law enforcement agencies and courts. The findings and typology have the potential to inform police training and prompt questions about whether greater invocation of police authority during routine stops for traffic violations undermines, rather than advances, both officer and civilian safety. The findings also lay an early empirical foundation for rethinking fundamental assumptions about officer safety and routine traffic stops in Fourth Amendment doctrine. This Article ultimately urges institutional actors that regulate the police to abandon oversimplified danger narratives surrounding routine traffic stops in favor of context-rich archetypes that more accurately reflect the risks and costs of policing during these stops.
TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. LIMITATIONS OF EXISTING DATA SOURCES A. LEOKA Statistics B. The Bristow Study C. Lichtenberg and Smith's Study II. METHODOLOGY III. STATISTICAL FINDINGS A. The Bases of the Stops B. Nature of the Violence: Officer Injury, Weapon Type, and Time of Day C. Danger Ratios IV. TYPOLOGY A. Inception of the Stop B. During the Stop 1. During the Stop: Pre-Invocation of Police Authority. 2. During the Stop: Post-Invocation of Police Authority C. Conclusion of the Stop D. Comparing Routine Traffic Stops and Criminal Enforcement Stops V. IMPLICATIONS A. Law Enforcement B. Courts 1. Pretextual Stops 2. Orders to Exit Vehicles C. Toward a New Research Agenda CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION
"Any vehicle encounter has the potential to be dangerous, so mitigate your risks on every stop." (1)
The traffic stop is the most common form of civilian interaction with the police. (2) Every year, police conduct tens of millions of traffic stops. (3) The dominant narrative in policing is that each one of these stops is not just highly dangerous but also potentially fatal. (4) Each stop is unique, and "there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop." (5)
Over the past few decades, police authority to question drivers and passengers, order them out of cars, and conduct various searches and seizures has expanded significantly. (6) The idea that routine traffic stops (7) are fraught with grave and unpredictable danger to the police has animated this expansion. For instance, in several Fourth Amendment cases involving traffic stops, the U.S. Supreme Court has deferred to law enforcement based on officer safety concerns, stressing that officers must be empowered during these stops to take "unquestioned command of the situation." (8)
The idea that routine traffic stops pose grave and unpredictable danger to the police also influences how officers are trained to approach and act during these stops. Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops (9) in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force. (10) With technological advances, these violent examples are also included as scenarios in virtual simulation programs that train officers in how to protect themselves during routine traffic stops. (11) Video clips and simulations make these extreme cases of violence all the more real for officers and define how they come to perceive the dangers of the routine traffic stops that they eventually conduct. (12)
The narrative that routine traffic stops are fraught with danger to the police is longstanding. (13) But as this Article explains, this narrative finds little support in existing studies or data. (14) One key shortcoming of leading sources is that they are largely devoid of context. (15) These sources provide little to no insight into the sequences, patterns, or trends connected to this violence. (16) They also offer no information on the contextual factors that precede this violence or the points of the traffic stop in which violence tends to occur. Given how little we know, it is not surprising that the most violent and extreme cases come to define the narrative surrounding routine traffic stops within key institutions that regulate the police (for instance, law enforcement agencies, courts, and legislatures).
To narrow this knowledge gap, I undertook the largest and most comprehensive study to date on violence against the police during routine traffic stops: defined in this Article as motor vehicle stops initiated only to enforce traffic violations. The study is the only qualitative study that systematically examines sequences, patterns, and trends surrounding this violence. Drawing on methods from the field of criminology, I gathered and analyzed incident narratives from a comprehensive sample of over 4,200 cases of violence against officers during traffic stops across more than 220 law enforcement agencies in the state of Florida over a 10-year period. (17) This study is the first to offer an informed estimate of the danger rate that police officers actually face during routine traffic stops for traffic violations.
To summarize, the findings do not support the dominant danger narrative surrounding routine traffic stops. Based on a conservative estimate, I found that the rate for a felonious killing of an officer during a routine traffic stop for a traffic violation was only 1 in every 6.5 million stops. (18) The rate for an assault that results in serious injury (19) to an officer was only 1 in every 361,111 stops. Finally, the rate for an assault (whether it results in officer injury or not) was only 1 in every 6,959 stops. Less conservative estimates suggest that these rates may be much lower. (20)
In addition, the vast majority (over 98%) of the evaluated cases in the study resulted in no or minor injuries to the officers. Further, only a very small percentage of cases (about 3%) involved violence against officers in which a gun or knife was used or found at the scene, and the overwhelming majority of those cases resulted in no or minor injuries to an officer. (21) Less than 1% of the evaluated cases involved guns or knives and resulted in serious injury to or the felonious killing of an officer. (22)
The study also identified that routine traffic stops have a different risk profile than criminal enforcement stops: defined in this Article as stops initiated to investigate or enforce the criminal law beyond a traffic violation. (23) The study is the first to systematically examine how violence against the police may differ within these stop categories. I found that the most common weapons used to assault officers during routine traffic stops were "personal weapons"--namely, a driver's or passengers hands, fists, or feet. (24) Conversely, the most common weapon used to assault officers during criminal enforcement stops was the motor vehicle itself (for instance, using the car to run over an officer).
To enhance our contextual understanding of this violence, this Article also draws on qualitative methods to offer the first comprehensive typology of major traffic stop scenarios that escalate into violence against the police. (25) In short, four variables preceded the violence in most (just under 94%) of the evaluated cases: (1) the encounter resulted from a criminal enforcement stop rather than a routine traffic stop; (2) the driver refused to submit to the encounter, either by refusing to pull over or by fleeing, on foot or in the vehicle, after initially pulling over; (3) the officer reported noticing clear signs of intoxication upon initial contact with the driver or passenger; or (4) the officer invoked their authority during the stop in some way beyond asking for basic information, requesting documentation, or running a records check-for instance, ordering drivers out of the car or placing their hands on the drivers. (26) Notably, only a very small percentage of violence against the police (just over 3%) involved violence that was random or unprovoked and was not preceded by one of these variables. (27) Only a handful of those cases involved guns or knives.
In enhancing our...