On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over while driving in Prairie View, Texas, for failure to signal a lane change after moving to allow a trooper’s vehicle to pass her car. As the stop progressed, the trooper ordered Bland to get out of her car. When she refused, the trooper threatened to “yank [Bland] out” of her car and “light [her] up” with his taser. After Bland left her vehicle, Trooper Encinia handcuffed her, wrestled her to the ground, and kneeled on her. He later falsely claimed that Bland assaulted him. Three days later, police found Bland hanging in her jail cell. Officials ruled her death to be a suicide.
Less than a year later, on July 6, 2016, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, Officer Yanez pulled Philando Castile over as he drove his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter. Reynolds claims they were told to stop because of a broken taillight. However, over the police scanner, Officer Yanez stated he was stopping the vehicle to check Castile’s ID because Castile and Reynolds looked “like people that were involved in a robbery” and Castile especially “look[ed] more like one of [the robbery] suspects, just because of the wide-set nose.” One minute into the stop, Officer Yanez drew his weapon and shot Castile multiple times. The officer claimed he fired his gun because he believed Castile was reaching for the gun Castile had reported having in the vehicle. In the Facebook live video capturing the shooting’s aftermath, Reynolds can be heard saying “You told him to get his ID sir, his driver’s license. . . . He was just getting his license and registration, sir.” Officials pronounced Castile dead at the hospital.
Although only Bland and Castile’s final traffic stops and tragic deaths made headlines, those stops were only two of the dozens they experienced. Police first stopped Castile when he was eighteen when he was driving with his learner’s permit. “From there, he descended into a seemingly endless cycle of traffic stops, fines, court appearances, late fees, [driver’s license] revocations and reinstatements in various jurisdictions.” In his fourteen years of driving, police stopped Castile fifty-two times, resulting in eighty-six minor traffic offenses and $6,588 in fines and fees. National Public Radio’s analysis of forty-six of Castile’s stops showed that only six of the stops were for “things a police officer would notice from outside the car — things like speeding or having a broken muffler.” Many of the reports listed no reason for the stop at all.
Sandra Bland was similarly plagued with frequent traffic stops; she struggled with the debt created by traffic citations. While driving around Houston and her nearby University, Prairie View A&M, Bland was “deluged with traffic tickets, fines, and court costs.” The cost of tickets would balloon due to the fees and surcharges Texas and localities added to the tickets. Some of the additional charges included “a $25 ‘records management’ fee, a $15 ‘judicial fund’ fee,” and fees to fund “services for people with brain and spinal-cord injuries,” and the local “juvenile-justice school.” Bland’s debt to Texas became so unmanageable that she had to “sit out” her debt by serving six weeks in jail. And when she moved to Illinois, her problems with traffic stops continued. In 2013, a stop for speeding in Naperville, Illinois ended in $4,000 in fines. The fines from that stop were greater than half of her gross income that year.
Castile and Bland’s histories of frequent police stops are examples of the larger problem of the increased police scrutiny faced by those “Driving While Black.” Racially-targeted police practices are part of the large legacy of American police enforcing racial caste systems—from slavery to the New Jim Crow. Pulling over Black drivers is, in part, a method encouraged during the “war on drugs.” This was due in part to “racist profiles of supposed drug carriers.” Today, studies continue to document that Black drivers are still far more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.