I had to watch the video. I didn’t want to—I’ve already seen way too many that are eerily similar. But if I’m going to write about it, I need to see it for myself. I owe that, at least, to you my readers.
Yes, it is horrific—sad and deplorable at the same time. It is likely that most of us have seen replays of the video of the murderous beating of Tyre Nichols. The brutality of the “elite SCORPION unit” has been rehashed over and over so there is no need to comment further upon that in this space. But there are two elements to this tragedy which have perhaps been underreported that merit consideration.
The first concerns where Tyree Nichols was going—in his own harrowing words as captured on the video, “I’m just trying to go home.” In fact, he was only about sixty yards from his mother’s home when he called out to her while in the midst of being beaten and when he was most frightened for his very life. His mother’s poignant comments in the press conference after the release of the video should haunt every parent, indeed every person, and speak powerfully to this tragedy, repeated all too often in America today: “No mother, no mother, no mother, should go through what I’m going though right now, no mother, to lose their child to the violent way I lost my child.”
The second aspect of this tragedy lies in the still unpresented evidence that a minor traffic violation prompted the traffic stop that led to his brutal beating. Was a crime committed? Was there a traffic violation at all? Was the community in danger, prompting the escalatory response that led to Nichols’ death? While this may change as more is revealed, as of this writing there has been no evidence of a traffic violation at all.
If we look at these tragic cases in the aggregate, many that have resulted in deaths of unarmed young Black men (a vital element in a much broader conversation), have been sparked by traffic violations—real or imagined. No one denies that with the increased use of automobiles, traffic safety is an important element in maintaining community wellbeing. Yes, we must ensure that our roads are as safe as possible. But it is ironic that the need to ensure safety on our roads has led so often to such fatal results for a certain segment of the population. How has their safety been enhanced?
This leads to a second under-reported aspect of this case: the potential use of technology to mitigate this ongoing horror. Granted, this will not reduce racism in our society or eliminate the malevolent actions of rogue cops. But with the technology we now have, we must ask: are police-initiated traffic stops the best way to guarantee safety in our streets? Can’t we use digital technology to alter the course of events at the front end of these incidents? We have mounted cameras that record the running of traffic lights, we have computerized systems that check expired licenses and registrations, we have electronic surveillance systems that monitor speeding and collect tolls. Why couldn’t we apply such technologies to shift the ways law enforcement deals with traffic violations? Could this help stanch the carnage?
This is not a new issue. Sarah Seo, writing in the New York Times on April 15, 2021 (almost two years ago!), states, “One way to address this problem is to reduce the number of encounters that drivers have with police officers…The solution is to decrease our reliance on human enforcement. Having police officers implement traffic laws is not the only way to promote road safety. Indeed, the evidence suggests that it is not even the optimal way to do so… Of course, some human enforcement of traffic laws will always be necessary. But the traffic police do not need to be weaponized officers trained to approach stops with a heightened expectation of conflict; unarmed traffic monitors could be used instead.”
And traffic duty distracts law enforcement personnel from their main task of fighting crime. As Seo states, “in terrible, tragic ways — police enforcement of traffic laws [has] also come to undermine the primary purpose of traffic stops: public safety.”
There is little doubt that the proliferation of video cameras has exposed excessive police violence historically used against people of color that is often covered up by bogus police claims of violence directed against them or he-says-she-says justice that has favored law enforcement over individual citizens.
Technology that extends beyond the digital universe has often been used to advance traffic safety—the primary example being the development of seat belts. Devices that measure a driver’s consumption of alcohol limit drunk driving.
I once lived in Teaneck, NJ, about three blocks from Route 4—a main entrance to Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. Every weekend—seriously, every weekend—there were ear-piercing crashes when cars would vault the low divider separating east and west bound traffic. It was horrible to hear. With the installation of Jersey Barriers (high concrete dividers), these devastating crashes ended virtually overnight.
Creative law enforcement approaches using technology that already exist can go a long way toward mitigating the destruction to lives and communities by sensibly finding better ways to enforce our traffic laws, saving lives and increasing neighborhood safety in the process.