Audio clips from the police radio suggest that one of the tragedies of Philando Castile’s death by St. Anthony law enforcement in Minnesota was that he was victim of simply “driving while black.”
According to audio recovered by local news station KARE11 from a viewer, an officer radioed a traffic stop that they matched Castile’s license plate and location on July 6 allegedly because Castile looked like a robbery suspect, “just ’cause of the wide set nose”:
I’m going to stop a car. I’m going to check IDs. I have reason to pull it over.
The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks like one of our suspects, just ‘cause of the wide set nose.
KARE11 could not identify the robbery the officer referred to that precipitated the traffic stop. It is also unclear how an officer could make out a driver’s nose shape, or why nose shape, as described, would be enough to justify someone fitting the profile of a suspected criminal.
Instead the recording sounds like a blatant instance of racial profiling that occurs when “driving while black,” a problem Castile was seemingly familiar with.
Tom Winter, an NBC News investigative reporter, noted that Castile had been pulled over 52 times for misdemeanors including driving without a muffler and speeding.
A 2013 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that in 2011, African Americans were more likely to report being pulled over (12.8 percent) than white drivers (9.8 percent) and Hispanic drivers (10.4 percent). The report also indicated that black drivers were nearly three times more likely than white drivers to be stopped and searched — 6.3 percent to 2.3 percent, respectively.
The Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department showed much starker racial disparities. Although black people comprised 67 percent of Ferguson residents, they accounted for 85 percent of people stopped, 90 percent of those issued a citation, and 93 percent of those arrested.
The constant cycle of fines and short jail sentences through this form of policing was cited in the report as a burden on many of Ferguson’s residents. More broadly, a 2015 report by Jack Hitt for Mother Jones found one of the problems is that traffic stops in many municipalities are too often incentivized to generate revenue, at the expense the most vulnerable:
There is still no comprehensive study to determine just how many cities pay their bills by indenturing the poor, but it is probably no coincidence that when you examine the recent rash of police killings, you find that the offenses they were initially stopped for were preposterously minor.
Simply put, more traffic tickets generate more money. But when revenue depends on tickets issued, too often existing racial biases are exploited to turn a profit. The Ferguson report showed high incarceration rates there, because residents often could not afford to pay the fines incurred from ticketing. And a panel of New York police officers recently admitted they often target the most vulnerable — poor people, people of color, and LGBTQ people — to meet quotas.
But economic incentives need not be necessary considering that Castile is not the first high-profile traffic stop turned fatal.
Exactly a year ago, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was pulled over for a routine traffic stop in Texas that quickly escalated when the officer asked Bland to put out her cigarette and she refused. Smoking in one’s car is not illegal, but what began as a traffic stop led to Bland’s arrest. Bland suddenly died while still in police custody three days later.
The coroner ruled her death a suicide, which her family has publicly disputed.
Should Bland have cooperated? Did Castile fail to follow orders? These questions seem innocuous. But the reality is that these questions fail to hold law enforcement accountable to their own racist policing practices that put black lives at risk.
“Driving while black” isn’t just as simple as taking a car from point A to point B as a black person. For African Americans, “driving while black” sometimes means hoping that you get to point B without incident, and, hopefully, alive.
CORRECTION: The original post said Castile had been pulled over 31 times. It has been updated to show that he was pulled over 52 times over the course of his driving history.