Seattle inspector general calls for end to low-level traffic stops to avoid deadly outcomes

Seattle police in South Park. (KIRO 7 TV, Brian Doerflinger )

Nationwide there are some 20 million traffic stops every year. Researchers say they are the most common face-to-face encounter with police, according to Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who is calling on interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz to end low level traffic stops that she says are not worth the risk of tragic outcomes seen both to officers and community members.

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In a letter this week to Chief Diaz, Judge points to data from Mapping Police Violence, which tracks police-involved deaths, indicating that a 11% of all people killed by police in 2019 were killed during traffic stops, and a disproportionate number of those – 32% – were Black. In that same year, six of 48 officer deaths happened during traffic stops.

In that same year, Seattle officers issued nearly 28,000 traffic infractions, each of which not only posed the risk of a potential tragic outcome, but also further eroded trust between police and community, Judge argued.

She points to a handful of recent examples where stops for minor violations have ended tragically, including in Seattle on New Year’s Eve in 2018, when SPD officers shot and killed Iosia Faletogo, a 36-year-old Samoan man they had stopped for an unsafe lane change when a license-plate check on the car he was driving showed the registered owner had a suspended driver’s license.

Other examples Judge offered included:

  • On April 11, 2021, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop for expired plates in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota
  • On February 4, 2021, Darian Jarrot, a New Mexico State Police officer, was fatally shot during a traffic stop by a driver with an assault rifle.
  • On September 27, 2019, Sandeep Dhaliwal, 42-years old and the first Sikh deputy in Harris County, Texas, was killed when a suspect shot him in the back of the head during a traffic stop for running a stop sign.
  • On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot during a traffic stop for a broken taillight in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Many in law enforcement acknowledge traffic stops are inherently dangerous, with officers approaching unknown persons, often in darkened vehicles, sometimes in remote areas, without knowing whether that person may try to harm them to avoid being arrested,” Judge wrote.

She says at the same time low level traffic stops have been shown to create less favorable opinion of cops, or flat out distrust, especially among communities of color.

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The deaths of officers during these incidents are just as unacceptable as to those of the citizen, according to Judge, who explains in the letter: “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others.

“Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers,” she continued.

Judge makes clear her call to end these types of traffic stops in no way indicates a desire to end enforcement for things like reckless driving, DUI, and other dangerous actions. But, in the midst of an ongoing conversation about ways to reshape public safety and policing, she says it makes sense to limit these unnecessary interactions to avoid some of these tragic outcomes.

So far no comment on the letter from Chief Diaz.

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