Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops

Jordan Blair Woods*

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.

*Assistant Professor of Law, University of Arkansas School of Law, Fayetteville. I am thankful for the helpful discussions and suggestions from Emilie Aguirre, Amna Akbar, Monica Bell, Robert Bloom, Bennett Capers, Maureen Carroll, Beth Colgan, Aliza Cover, Andrew Manuel Crespo, Sharon Dolovich, Jessica Eaglin, Sharon Foster, Will Foster, Brian Gallini, Adam Gershowitz, Carol Goforth, Lauryn Gouldin, Rachel Harmon, Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, David Kwok, Gwendolyn Leachman, Kate Levine, Jonathan Marshfield, Sandra Mayson, Tiffany Murphy, Laurent Sacharoff, Jocelyn Simonson, Annie Smith, Seth Stoughton, Sherod Thaxton, Alan Trammell, Bob Weisburg, and Brandon Weiss. I am also grateful for the feedback that I received at the 2018 Yale/Stanford/Harvard Junior Faculty Forum, 2018 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting, 2017 New Scholars Program at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Annual Meeting, 2017 American Bar Association-Association of American Law Schools Criminal Justice Section work-in-progress academic roundtable, 2017 AALS Midyear Meeting of the Criminal Justice Section, CrimFest 2016, University of Arkansas School of Law Faculty Workshop, and the Junior Scholars Criminal Justice Roundtable at Brooklyn and St. John’s Law Schools. I received valuable research assistance from Hannah Andrews, Jett Hudgens, Elizabeth Kanopsic, Ross Kepesky, Brian McQuiston II, and Alex Shell. Thank you to the editors and staff of the Michigan Law Review for their careful edits, insightful suggestions, and hard work.

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