Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Police must end bogus, racist traffic stops | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, a new book says Watergate-era cynicism made 1974 a peak year for American pop culture

A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright stares at a police officer in riot gear on Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
A demonstrator protesting the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright stares at a police officer in riot gear on Sunday in Brooklyn Center, Minn.Read moreJoshua Lott

As Donald Trump and his hold on the American imagination shrivel in the South Florida sun, America is still dealing with both the diseases that created him, and the messes he left behind. Some Beltway journalists seem bored by the new normal, but from gross racial injustice in Minnesota to agonizing gridlock on Capitol Hill, there’s plenty to talk about. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at, because fixing America is only dull to people with dull minds.

A cop stopped Daunte Wright for expired tags. Then, Wright died. This is intolerable.

I’m starting to write this column only a few minutes after watching the mayor and police chief of Brooklyn Center, Minn. — a suburb of Minneapolis — try to explain the utterly inexplicable, which is how yet another young, unarmed Black man ended up dead in the street, felled by a police bullet. My hands are still shaking a bit with fury.

How could Daunte Wright — a 20-year-old Black man, father of a 2-year-old son — die at the hands of police just 10 miles away from where justice is sought for last year’s police killing of George Floyd, which was supposed to trigger some sort of racial reckoning in America? How could a veteran police officer make such a life-or-death mistake in firing her handgun thinking it was a Taser? And how could a traffic stop over something so trivial — either an expired registration tag, or an air freshener hung on the rear-view mirror — result in ending a human life?

What’s more, the police killing of Wright came as the nation was still processing the shocking video from another police traffic stop in Windsor, Va., where an officer was fired this weekend after body-cam footage showed him dousing a uniformed Black U.S. Army medic with pepper spray. The medic had been pulled over for lacking a license plate, even though the temporary tag for the newly purchased vehicle was prominently displayed in a rear window.

The outcome is Virginia was different (there, Lt. Caron Nazario now is suing two Windsor officers for using excessive force) but what’s so striking is what these two incidents shared in common. Both drivers were Black men, and both were reportedly stopped for violations of traffic law that were inconsequential, and arguably trivial. As these events too often escalate, almost irrationally, into out-of-all-proportion violence, more experts are saying we should no longer ask, why did this traffic stop go bad? We should ask, why have these traffic stops at all?

“Traffic stops come fraught with problems,” said Barry Friedman, the New York University Law School professor who is faculty director of its Policing Project and one of those experts questioning the purpose of most police encounters with motorists. He said that while safer roads are the ostensible purpose for police traffic enforcement, highway stops are also seen as a source of revenue for cash-strapped communities, and — most importantly — are often viewed by cops as a pretext to investigate other crimes, often around narcotics or guns.

Studies have shown that in communities with large Black and brown populations, these so-called pretextual traffic stops are the rule, not the exception. Busted tail lights, or a not-illuminated license plate, or an expired tag (although apparently thousands of motorists in Minnesota are driving with them, in the wake of COVID-19), or making a too-wide left turn or crossing a yellow line.

Or, incredibly, an air freshener dangling down from a driver’s rear-view mirror. When I initially heard on Sunday night about the killing of Daunte Wright, and read that in his final seconds he’d called his mother and said his air freshener was the reason cops pulled him over, I was shocked. But — as Buzzfeed’s Zoe Tillman reported last June — traffic stops over these air fresheners aren’t just frequent but have been upheld by the courts. The claim is that they obstruct a driver’s vision, although experts say cops may believe their purpose is to mask the smell of marijuana. Air fresheners shouldn’t be illegal — if they’re so deadly, why does Pep Boys have an aisle filled with them? — but then, marijuana shouldn’t be, either.

In the end, Brooklyn Center police claimed the deadly stop wasn’t over the air freshener you can buy at Autozone but over the expired tag that half of Minnesota apparently is also driving with. But statistics suggest the real reason Daunte Wright was pulled over — which is the reason that he’s no longer alive — was the color of his skin.

» READ MORE: Pa. should expand automated speed enforcement, not the use of police radar | Opinion

Two years ago, the Stanford Open Policing Project released the findings of a lengthy analysis of 100 million traffic stops across a number of states and cities (including Philadelphia) and found clear-cut patterns of racial bias. The disparities between stops of Black versus white motorists was lower at night, when it would be harder for officers to eyeball who is behind the wheel. And cops were more likely to search the vehicles of Black and brown motorists — even though the study showed white drivers more often actually had contraband.

“In Black and brown communities,” NYU’s Friedman told me, “the vast majority of stops are pretextual” — meaning the goal isn’t highway safety but finding more serious crimes, or an outstanding warrant, as happened Sunday with Daunte Wright. The toll of this racial profiling is enormous, both in the scores of people killed every year during traffic stops, as well as the psychological trauma for most Black and brown drivers knowing that cops can, and will, find minor traffic infractions that could trigger a major life event.

There are ways to prevent this. With the rise of new technology, some experts argue that devices like the speed and red-light cameras now used on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Boulevard and automated speed enforcement — machines sending tickets to any driver exceeding the speed limit by, say, 11 mph — would ensure highway safety while eliminating the need for traffic stops and the human prejudices that corrupt the process. Other cities such as Berkeley, Calif., have moved to have civilians enforce traffic laws instead of armed cops. These approaches aren’t a perfect panacea — Friedman noted that cameras can be overloaded in non-white neighborhoods, and that ticketing whites at the rate that Black and brown drivers are accustomed to could spark political backlash — but they are surely worth trying. So is just not writing these tickets at all.

Ironically, the violent traffic stop of Lt. Nazario in Virginia occurred just months before a new law enacted by that state’s progressive legislature took effect. It reduced a slew of minor traffic violations such as loud exhaust systems, tinted windows, and yes, objects dangling from a rear-view mirror, to secondary offenses that can’t be the main reason for pulling over a motorist. A few other jurisdictions are weighing similar laws — but not enough of them.

The bottom line, said Friedman, “is that they need to dramatically reduce the number of things in which police can interfere with people’s liberty.” Let alone their life. If someday in the near future, I open my mail and there’s a ticket for driving 66 mph on the Schuylkill, I’ll be bummed. But living in a nation where a man can be killed for Air Freshening While Black is intolerable.

Help wanted

The looming first week of May will mark the 50th anniversary of an event that is somewhat lost to history yet unforgettable to anyone who participated: 1971′s so-called May Day protests in Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War that resulted in the largest mass arrest in American history, with some of the thousands detained, Chilean-style, on the football field at RFK Stadium. A goodly number of protesters went down from here in Philadelphia. Were you one of them? I’d love to talk to you for an anniversary column I’ll be writing in the near future. Please contact me at

Yo, do this

  1. Arguably, 1974 was a lousy year for America, with Richard Nixon’s Watergate downfall, the lingering hangover from Vietnam, and both crime and supermarket prices on the rise. So why was the nation’s pop culture so awesome? — especially in Los Angeles as it produced movies like Chinatown, TV shows like All in the Family and the Laurel Canyon sound of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. The ace political writer Ronald Brownstein may be just the right man to explain why that was no coincidence, as he argues in his new tome Rock Me on the Water that bitter times can make for great art.

  2. OK, so you want to design a podcast that will be mentioned in The Will Bunch Newsletter? Then make it a mystery about a 1960s radical who was unfairly convicted of burning down a St. Louis ROTC building hours after the Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970, and then went on the lam. Throw in a subplot about MLK assassination conspiracy theories. This is what the documentarian Nina Gilden Seavey has done in her new Audacy podcast called My Fugitive — and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Ask me anything

Question: Do you ever see the Democrats doing what they should have done long ago and moving for statehood for Puerto Rico and/or Washington, D.C.? — Ian Sirota, via email

Answer: Too much of this conversation gets bogged down in inside-the-Beltway power politics, since D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood would likely mean four more Democratic votes in the Senate, which in turn might allow for the busting of the filibuster and a true progressive agenda. Of course, the filibuster (thanks, Sen. Manchin) makes it highly unlikely that either place becomes a state before 2023. But statehood should be a moral issue, not a political one. There’s a straight line between Puerto Rico’s lack of political representation and the pathetic lack of aid for Hurricane Maria. Ditto for D.C. and the January 6 insurrection. Do the right thing, Democrats — and try to make this happen.


It was just two months ago that President Biden promised to reverse one of the worst legacies of the Donald Trump, with his plans that would restore the notion of the United States as a beacon for the world’s refugees while reversing the 45th president’s gut-wrenching policies at the southern border. “Today, I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need,” POTUS 46 said of his plan to raise the nation’s cap on political asylum to a higher level than it had been under Barack Obama, his former boss. “It’s going to take time to rebuild what has been so badly damaged.”

» READ MORE: President Biden’s ‘mistake’ at U.S. southern border isn’t what clueless pundits, GOP think it is | Will Bunch

Too much time, it seems. Battered by pressure from congressional Republicans and a hectoring Beltway media over a surge in thousands of unaccompanied minors now crammed into substandard accommodations, Team Biden is slow-walking its plan, and by slow-walking I mean doing nothing. With no presidential follow-up on the cap, the United States is on a pace for the current fiscal year to admit only 4,510 refugees — or about half of Trump’s worst year. What’s more, the Biden administration is now working with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to amp up their military response to the flow of refugees, meaning that desperate humans fleeing murder, gang warfare and climate-change-induced flooding will be met with the barrel of a gun. That’s not what Central America needs to end this crisis. That’s not humane. And that’s not what you promised, President Biden. Do better — a lot better — and do it quickly,

Inquirer reading list

  1. In my Sunday column, I tackled an evergreen topic: The utter hypocrisy of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and his new, ridiculous attack on “woke corporations” after years of catering to every whim of America’s CEOs. That said, is there suddenly a moment to truly rein in corporate America?— by raising its taxes and by curbing its ability to influence Congress with lobbyists and money.

  2. Over the weekend, I crossed the aisle to take a hard look at what’s really up with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, and his delusional dreams of D.C. bipartisanship. I spoke to some of his constituents back in the Mountain State about what they really need from Washington, which is action on its crumbling roads and bridges, its lack of broadband access, climate-change-worsened flood and other problems that won’t be solved if Manchin remains stuck on process issues, and his massive ego.

  3. You don’t become the district attorney in a large American city promising to end mass incarceration without making some powerful enemies. As progressive DA Larry Krasner seeks a second term, his challenger Carlos Vega has backing from the FOP and the city’s “old boy” legal network — all while the city reels from a rising murder rate. The Inquirer’s veteran political writer Chris Brennan has the preview on a race that could tell us where Philly — and the rest of the political world — is headed in 2021, and beyond. You can’t learn about local elections without a local paper. Subscribe to The Inquirer today.