Can Rethinking American Police Roadblocks Save Lives?

In a quiet suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a pile of flowers, tickets and candles near a tree near a small lawn in front. This corner of Nelson Avenue and Griggs Street—the intersection of two parallel rows of neat wooden houses, cars in the driveway, and holiday Easter decorations in the galleries—could be anywhere in the American Midwest.    

However, some residents speak of something else, much less visible but just as familiar: a sense of insecurity due to the colour of their skin. “We are facing the same issue again: police brutality, police injustice in our country,” says 57-year-old Terry Roberts. “I think most black men experience this. We get pulled over for no reason or because we’re driving in black. That’s all. “

Police released footage of the murder of 26-year-old Patrick Ley this week. The tragic incident was captured in graphic detail and from multiple angles with a police body camera, a police video camera, an eyewitness phone, and a doorbell security system at a Nelson Avenue home. This makes it difficult for everyone to see. Frame by frame, what began as a routine traffic accident – Mr Leya being questioned by a white police officer on suspicion of breaking a license plate – quickly develops into an outcome that raises questions about racial injustice and police attention.    

Mr Leya sometimes looks confused and tries to run away. His hand can be seen holding and repelling the stun gun as the officer attempts to use it at close range. In the ensuing fight, Mr Leya is forced to lie face down on the ground while a police officer lying on top of him yells for him to let go of the stun gun. Then, without warning, the officer draws a pistol and shoots Mr Lee in the head.    

A short drive from Grand Rapids in Lansing, the state capital of Michigan, the same biting wind blows over the Great Lakes even in the spring.    

But there is an essential difference between the two cities that some people think could help prevent more deaths like Patrick Leys. “Two years ago, after the George Floyd accident, we wanted to evaluate our policies,” says Lansing Mayor Andy Shore. The incident in which Mr Floyd died at the hands of a police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes prompted Mr Shore to outlaw methods of restraint such as strangulation. But it also led to a broader overhaul, where the decision was made to narrow down why policemen might stop people in cars.    

“We have a policy that our agents don’t stop people just for reasons other than public safety,” the mayor said. While dangerous violations such as speeding or prohibition signs are still enforced on the side of the road, he believes there are other, much more effective and potentially less conflicting ways to deal with things like headlights, cracked hind limbs or traffic violations. Traffic rules. Plate number.   

Walter Scott was shot five times in the back while running from a stop in South Carolina, which escalated into a fight. In 2017, the officer was sentenced to 20 years for murder. Sandra Bland committed suicide in prison in 2015, three days after she was arrested for a minor traffic violation in Texas.    

A police officer was filmed arguing with her and threatening her with a stun gun. Daunt Wright died in a fight over a traffic violation. The officer would use a stun gun, but instead, he took a pistol.  

The tragedy of 2021 provoked riots in Minneapolis. And telling officers what offences they should stop drivers for reduces the risk of knowing or unconscious racial profiling inherent in a free-for-all approach, which he acknowledged could escalate. “You never want a traffic stop to end in the death of the person being stopped or the police officer.” 

The police investigation in Michigan will now have to answer the critical questions in the Patrick Leya case: what kind of threat, if any, he posed, and what level of force was appropriate in response. But these are questions that the United States police ask all too often. A recent New York Times investigation into roadside arrests found that police officers shot and killed more than 400 American drivers who did not own a gun or knife or were involved in violent crime over five years.   

As a result of these numbers, Lansing isn’t the only place trying to take a fresh look at how to reduce them. Los Angeles and Philadelphia are among other cities and areas where police or city officials have rewritten rules for common traffic violations.    

Carlton T. Myers, an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he welcomes the change as a practical approach to a longstanding problem. “We have seen young teenagers, black and Hispanic, with guns pointed at them due to misidentification. We saw a young black man being punched on video during a routine stop,” he told me. “And that’s just the last two years in Grand Rapids before the tragedy of Patrick. We know that these problems exist, and we need everyone to step up.” 

In a country with a high rate of gun ownership, where there are no easy solutions to the problems of discrimination and prejudice, changes to traffic blocking rules could at least minimize the chances of minor interactions becoming casualties. Ms Miles welcomed some police forces’ renewed focus on minor traffic violations handled by rangers rather than traffic cops.   

“Now this responsibility is taken by unarmed people, not by armed law enforcement,” he says. “But ultimately, it can’t just be a change in policy or a change in the law. You always need a holistic approach, and it must be multidimensional.” 

A few doors away from where Patrick Lea was shot, I met Ida Nixon, a black woman who had lived on the street for 43 years.   

“When it’s fixed, we’ll never know,” he sighed. “I’m sorry about his family,” he said, “And the cop and his family know what they’re going through.” 

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