As people along the Eastern Seaboard try to survive the heat, one Virginia police chief tried a new way to serve his community: Instead of pulling people over and handing out tickets, hand out ice cream cones.
In a video taken Saturday by Halifax, Virginia, police officer Brian Warner, Police Chief Kevin Lands is seen walking up to a vehicle, approaching a black woman in the driver's seat. She expects this is a routine traffic stop. When asked if she knew why she was pulled over, she replied, politely, "No, sir."
Citing "vehicle code 220.127.116.11.," Lands explains the infraction to her: "Well, it’s actually against the law to drive on a hot day without an ice cream cone. So on behalf of the Halifax Police Department, we’re just making sure everybody is following all the laws today and are driving with ice cream cones." The woman immediately bursts into laughter. The video has since gone viral.
"Her reaction was absolutely the best," Warner told local news station WSET. "That's one of the great things with police work — you get to meet people like that on a daily basis, and it makes the job worth it."
The video is sweet. Literally. And at a moment when tensions between police officers and communities of color are palpable, an officer offering an ice cream cone to a black driver presents a bit of relief.
Instead of a clash between communities and law enforcement, often catalyzed by an extrajudicial killing and lack of accountability, the video — and many other feel-good viral videos like it — presents one moment of a cop doing a good deed. Or at least a cop who isn’t doing the wrong thing.
But with the laughs and the camaraderie, the video doesn’t adequately account for how dangerous it can be to drive while black. How the woman’s genuine smile may not be simply because she was surprised but instead could also be a sigh of relief that she made it out alive, despite the many examples that show this to be otherwise.
"Driving while black" can literally cost you your life
Even though Lands and Warner may have pulled the woman over to put a smile on her face, black people are regularly pulled over for routine traffic stops — far more often than their white peers.
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 differences are slight. But the disparity between how often black and brown drivers are pulled over compared with their white counterparts opens the door to more dangerous effects.
The Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department following the 2014 officer-involved killing of resident Mike Brown, 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 of 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.
And while cities profit off the tickets, traffic ticket tyranny continues when people aren’t able to pay them off. 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 that they often target the most vulnerable — poor people, people of color, and LGBTQ people — to meet quotas.
But traffic violations are also one of the troubling threads connecting a number of the recent high-profile police killings of African Americans.
According to Tom Winter, an NBC News investigative reporter, Philando Castile, who was killed by police in Minnesota last month, had been pulled over at least 47 times for misdemeanors including driving without a muffler and speeding. Almost exactly a year ago, 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, and Bland died suddenly while still in police custody three days later.
"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.
Instead of handing out ice cream, hold police officers accountable
Sure, the surprise ice cream traffic stop was a part of building trust with communities. But community mistrust doesn’t come from a lack of summer desserts. It stems from the systemic lack of ways to hold police accountable when they don’t protect and serve, particularly communities of color.
A 2014 Gallup poll showed that while 56 percent of American adults have a great deal of confidence in police, 59 percent of white adults held this view, compared with only 37 percent of African Americans.
Part of the difference in attitudes comes from African Americans’ experiences within a racially biased criminal justice system that overpolices black and brown neighborhoods and rarely holds officers accountable for reported mistreatment, excessive force, or even killing African Americans.
In a 2011 report by the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, only 32.8 percent of the 3,238 criminal cases filed against police officers between January and December 2010 resulted in a conviction — less than half the public conviction rate for criminal charges (68 percent). Among those rare convictions, only a little more than a third of them (36 percent) actually resulted in prison sentences.
This lack of police accountability only magnifies existing mistrust of police within African-American communities.
As of early July, police officers have killed at least 2,052 people since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black.
At the very least, the Halifax video shows that not every police officer is a bad apple. But as activists have tried to show, the problem isn’t that there’s just one bad cop among the many good ones. It’s that, like apples, bad cops spoil the whole bunch, and rarely do good cops take a stance against the rotten ones.
Sure, it’s nice if community members are able to share an ice cream cone with law enforcement on a hot summer afternoon. But part of repairing the relationship between communities and police is rectifying the institutional inequalities that too easily let law enforcement off the hook. And that work is far less sweet.