Sunday, October 2, 2022

Routine traffic stops too often turn deadly, and Jayland Walker is the latest victim

On June 27, a minor traffic stop cost a Black man his life.

Jayland Walker, 25, was pulled over by police in Akron, Ohio, for unspecified traffic and equipment violations. He left, and police later said Walker fired as he walked away from officers. During the nearly 3-minute chase, he left his car, which was still moving.

Eight police officers fired approximately 90 shots at Walker after they tried to electrocute him. A gun was found inside his car, but he was shot away from the vehicle after fleeing and no gun was found on him when police arrived and handcuffed him. Walker was pronounced dead by medics at the scene shortly after.

Police released body camera footage of the shooting nearly a week later on July 3, and widespread protests forced the city’s July 4 weekend events to be canceled.

On Friday morning, the Summit County Medical Examiner released a autopsy report concluding that Walker was shot or grazed 46 times by Akron police.

Walker is just one of almost 600 people who have died since 2017 after being pulled over by the police for only a minor infraction. Earlier this year, a police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man and Congolese refugee. The officer initiated a traffic stop for an unregistered license plate and, after a brief struggle, shot Lyoya in the back of the head.

Use deadly force on an unarmed runaway is unconstitutional. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that police officers cannot use deadly force in these situations unless police have probable cause that the threat was apparent. But that warning allows ample leeway for police to claim they encountered a threat, and Akron police will almost certainly cite the alleged shooting of Walker’s car, even though he was later found to be unarmed.

“Police discretion is so broad that they can justify their actions many times in some way,” said Miltonette Craig, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “Unless we have things like body camera footage and bystander video footage to piece things together, their discretion works in their favor in a lot of these cases.”

And the act of fleeing itself is, in some states, a felony. That is the case in Ohio, where Walker was killed. Experts say this not only triggers some police defenses for the use of deadly force, but increases simple flight offenses into high-risk situations where a lot can go wrong.

“There is an example of the law [that] it’s out of alignment with reality,” said Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The law offers no protection [for Walker], it offers protection for officers using force,” Jones said. “And the officers’ perception was that Jayland Walker was a threat, but they don’t have the perspective that Jayland Walker saw them as a threat.”

Protesters march after holding a vigil for Jayland Walker on July 8 in Akron, Ohio.
Protesters march after holding a vigil for Jayland Walker on July 8 in Akron, Ohio.

Angelo Merendino via Getty Images

In Michigan, where Lyoya was killed, fleeing and eluding police is considered a Class H felony, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

“There are reasons to think that when laws classify behavior as criminal, enforcement of those laws is intensified,” said TaLisa Carter, an assistant professor at American University in the department of justice, law and criminology. “Just as when laws relax around certain crimes, the way police respond to those actions also relaxes.”

The legal definition of when police can use deadly force is important, but the mindset of many police officers toward fleeing suspects remains dangerous even in states where it’s not a felony. In Maryland, fleeing from police is a misdemeanor, but in February, Baltimore police fatally shot Donnell Rochester, a black teenager, as he fled from a traffic stop while driving. While the department said the car drove toward the officer and struck him, body camera footage it showed Rochester driving and the officer never being hit. Initial police accounts also gave conflicting stories about what really happened around the fatal Rochester incident, raising questions.

Some cities, like Washington, have instituted “no pursuit” policies that would prohibit most police vehicle pursuits. The policy, which grew out of a reform commission following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, cited the case of Karon Hylton-Brown, a black man who was riding a scooter while being chased by DC police and died after being hit by a a driver. Jeffrey Price died after being hit by a DC police car in May 2018 while riding his dirt bike. The family filed a lawsuit saying the police chased and blocked him on purpose, resulting in his death.

Chicago also instituted its no foot chase politics in June. The change came after the high-profile 2021 shooting of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

Although Ohio’s laws remain strict, there have been small steps to change the way police go after fleeing people.

In 2019, Republican Governor Mike DeWine required that the Ohio Collaborative Community Policing Advisory Board create a new law enforcement standard for vehicular activities. The police advisory board was developed in 2016 while DeWine was serving as state attorney general.

The advisory board was tasked with issuing guidelines to local departments and policy recommendations for police to consider when developing their own standards around vehicle chases.

“Regardless of which agency is responsible for responding to traffic stops, it is critical that we aim for everyone involved to be alive at the end of the interaction.”

– TaLisa Carter, assistant professor at American University

Some of the recommendations included that police suspend vehicle chases to ensure the safety of officers and bystanders.

“This law that exists in Ohio can be used to say that they acted in the scope that the legislature gave me, where they will not be disciplined,” Craig told HuffPost. “If you pass a law that gives too much power in terms of decision-making and the shields an officer can have against disciplinary action or criminal prosecution, it looks like they can get away with whatever behavior they want.”

In December, Ohio lawmakers also pushed for legislation ban the cops completely stop drivers for minor infractions.

Carter, who agreed that officers should not be part of the arrests and should have better discretion in vehicle and foot pursuits, stressed that arrests for minor violations should not lead to death in any case. “Regardless of which agency is responsible for responding to traffic stops, it is critical that we aim for everyone involved to be alive at the end of the interaction,” Carter said.

Police experts are still looking for ways to avoid deadly chases and fatal traffic stops. One way, according to Kelcie Ralph, a transportation specialist at Rutgers University, is traffic cameras.

Traffic stops are the most common interactions between police and citizens, Ralph said. And a police officer doesn’t have to be involved every time someone might commit a minor violation with your vehicle.

“This is disproportionate policing and there are a lot of traffic stops for very small non-security issues. This would not add in-person human interaction. It would just be a camera,” Ralph told HuffPost. “Police make a lot of decisions about who to stop. There is a tendency to stop minority communities to a greater extent, it is not surprising that the same laws are not being influenced in the same way in affluent white communities as they are in black and Latino communities.”

Criminal justice advocacy groups have proposed other ways to remove police from traffic stops.

In 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice published a report where the group said “non-police first responders” should be specifically tasked with handling minor traffic violations and stops.

“Cities can replace police with unarmed civilian traffic response units housed in a city public works or transportation department and staffed with expert transportation and mediation personnel,” the report says.

Last year, Berkeley, California, city ​​officials voted approve a recommendation that police officers no longer focus on traffic stops for low-level offenses, such as not wearing a seat belt or having expired tags. Suggestions came in a “reform package” that was approved after the city cited disproportionate stops of black and brown people in the area.

These policies could have far-reaching effects for the people who live in those cities.

“[A traffic stop] it doesn’t feel good to the people who are being watched, and it has the potential to escalate,” Craig said. “We don’t want people to be afraid that something as small as that could result in their death, as we have seen.”

A funeral was held for Walker on Wednesday. City officials were not in attendance. Eight officers who shot Walker have been placed on administrative leave.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about fears surrounding minor police arrests. The statement had been made by Miltonette Craig, not by TaLisa Carter.

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