Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops

79 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2019

See all articles by Jordan Blair Woods

Jordan Blair Woods

University of Arkansas - School of Law

Date Written: March 26, 2019

Abstract

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.

Keywords: criminal procedure, policing, criminal law, Fourth Amendment, traffic stops, criminology

Suggested Citation

Woods, Jordan Blair, Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops (March 26, 2019). 117 Michigan Law Review 635-712 (2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3355119

Jordan Blair Woods (Contact Author)

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

260 Waterman Hall
Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States

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