April 18, 2021 Sandy Robson
Last Friday, the Whatcom Democrats Facebook page posted an April 15, 2021, article published by Vox, titled “Daunte Wright and the grim financial incentive behind traffic stops.”
The subtitle underneath the article’s headline reads: “How pretext traffic stops fund police departments — and put Black drivers in danger.”
A “pretext” traffic stop is when law enforcement stops people for a minor traffic violation and then that stop is used as a pretext to search for a more serious offense. Pretextual traffic stops are open to potential bias from officers.
Minor traffic violations often lead to the deaths of Black and POC drivers. Just last week, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer after reportedly being pulled over for expired tags, and for having an air-freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror. In Minnesota, it is illegal to have an item hanging from your vehicle’s rear-view mirror.
The recent tragic killing of Daunte Wright resulting from police pulling him over for that traffic stop reminded me of something I heard last year when watching a Bellingham Police Department video titled, “Police Perspective Project / 20E1: Race Policing & Defunding the Police,” that was posted on the Bellingham Police Department Facebook page and YouTube on July 1, 2020.
For that police perspective video, BPD officer Jon Knutsen talked with BPD’s then-Deputy Chief Flo Simon about race, police culture and the impact of defunding the police. Simon was appointed to interim police chief after former Police Chief David Doll retired and served his last day as chief on January 4, 2021.
During their discussion, both Simon and Knutsen denied that race plays any part in BPD’s policing. They insisted that behavior is what causes officers to stop people rather than race.
In the video, Simon said: “My first three years, if I stopped somebody who had a cracked windshield, was their license valid or suspended?”
Knutsen replied: “Probably suspended.”
Simon immediately followed up, saying:
“Suspended, 99% of the time. I knew they were suspended. That was the behavior. If you don’t take care of your stuff, then you probably don’t take care of your license — probably don’t take care of your tabs. And, I would make those traffic stops. And, so it’s the same thing when you see somebody that’s exhibiting behaviors that you know are, um, suspicious then you’re gonna make a contact.”
First, I think it is questionable that 99% of people driving with a cracked windshield who are pulled over by police in Bellingham are driving on a suspended license. And, certainly Simon’s claim does not speak to all of the people who are driving in Bellingham with cracked windshields.
It’s disturbing to hear someone with such a high-level position within the police department make such a claim.
It was especially disturbing to hear Simon say, “I knew they were suspended.” How could she possibly know for sure? I believe that making such a statement shows bias on her part.
I know that I have driven with a cracked windshield for a month or two here in Whatcom County and Bellingham before finally getting the windshield replaced. And, I heard from other people at the time the BPD police perspective video came out, who said they also had driven for a period of time with a crack in their windshield and had not been pulled over.
I imagine people have various reasons why they may have not yet had a cracked windshield fixed or replaced. Some people may not have the money, some may not have the time to immediately get their cracked windshield fixed, or they may have even recently had it fixed/replaced and now when they got another cracked windshield they don’t rush out to get it fixed/replaced again.
It is very possible that people’s financial status can adversely impact their ability to get a cracked windshield fixed/replaced, to get vehicle tags renewed on time, or to get things like a taillight that is broken or not working fixed.
Simon is basically telling the public watching the video that 99% of drivers in Bellingham with vehicles with a cracked windshield, or expired tags, or a broken taillight should be suspected of driving on a suspended license or even possibly other offenses. To me, that demonstrates a bias that I do not want to see exhibited by our local law enforcement officers, especially someone in a leadership role.
The Vox article reported in part:
“Traffic stops happen at the discretion of individual police officers — that is, each officer chooses who they will stop and what minor traffic or vehicle violation they will cite. During a stop, officers have the right to look for further law violations. They may search the vehicle, ‘run’ the license plate number, and search the legal histories of everyone in the car to see if the vehicle is appropriately registered, or if anyone has court-issued arrest warrants. The officers have complete discretion to write citations or give warnings, give the vehicle driver fines and fees, and to make arrests. Essentially, police officers can use pretext traffic stops to fish for minor citations or for more serious warrants connected to drivers and their passengers.
“The problem with pretext traffic stops is that when police use their discretion to decide who to pull over, they disproportionately pull over Black drivers more than white drivers, particularly within predominantly Black communities. As a result, Black drivers are searched 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers. The practice of pretext traffic stops allows police to surveil communities of color, over-patrol them, and pull people over.”
I believe that when traffic stops are made “at the discretion of individual police officers,” that makes it more likely for officers’ biases, including racial biases whether recognized or not by those officers, to come into play in terms of who they ultimately choose to pull over. The issue of traffic stops, and especially pretextual traffic stops, are something I want to see addressed by Bellingham’s new chief of police when they are hired.
Below, is a link to the April 15, 2020
Here is a link to BPD’s “Police Perspective Project / 20E1: Race Policing & Defunding the Police” video:
You can view Sandy’s post on her Facebook page here.