By Lorna Grisby
Tahjj Taylor is young, African American and buoyed about the future he’s forging as a documentary filmmaker. Yet his day-to-day outlook is weighted by past experiences with police.
Taylor, 27, of Denver, doesn’t have a record of major crimes. But he does have a history of traffic stops by police—some 50 between 2007 (when he was 18 and a newly licensed driver) and 2010.
“It was just always something petty. I remember this one time, there was a stop sign and I know I stopped,” Taylor said. But, he added, about a half mile beyond the sign, a Denver police officer pulled him over for failing to obey a stop sign.
Taylor’s experiences have had a negative impact on his health, which is not unusual. Increasingly, researchers are finding that the psychological effects of being subjected to chronic inequitable treatment can be significant and long-lasting. Also becoming clearer is that, despite changing policies, unequal treatment is sometimes engrained in law enforcement practices or culture.
“Pretextual” traffic stops
Stops in which police officers use minor traffic violations as excuses or pretext to pull over motorists to look for signs of drugs or other criminal activity—regardless of whether there’s evidence of a crime—are known as pretextual traffic stops, and they occur around the country. Despite longstanding controversy over the practice, it was upheld in 1996 by the Supreme Court in Whren v. United States.
Taylor was not the criminal target that pretextual traffic stops were designed to nab, and police never searched or asked to search his car during those stops. But, that’s not uncommon, according to Mark Silverstein, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
“I think of a pretextual stop as one where the officer’s secret reason for stopping is different from the stated reason,” Silverstein said. “Sometimes they’re called pretextual stops where the officer makes the stop for the license plate, lights out, and really the officer wants to see if he can find grounds for a search. Well, the officer might not find grounds for a search.”
While pretextual traffic stops may be glaring examples, police bias can extend beyond them. Various studies show that police disproportionately target African Americans in traffic stops of all kinds. A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that, nationally, more black drivers (13 percent) than white and Latino (10 percent each) were pulled over for traffic stops in their most recent contact with police; and blacks and Latinos were searched and ticketed at higher rates than whites.
Similarly, other studies have concluded that stop-and-search rates (both driving and walking) for blacks and Latinos were disproportionate to whites—even when they were less likely than whites to possess contraband.
Professor Charles Epp, PhD, of the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, examined research on institutional racial profiling in police work for the book Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, which he co-authored. He categorized pretextual stops, also known as investigatory stops, among the primary police practices that lead to racial disparities in law enforcement.
“They are one of the key manifestations of institutionalized racism in policing today. … Somewhere around 12 percent of African Americans drivers are subjected to investigatory stops each year—that’s an extraordinarily high proportion of the population, and those stops have important consequences in people’s lives,” Epp said. “They affect how [those stopped] perceive their place in society, how they perceive the police, whether they trust the police, and they affect how people perceive the law.”
Research also shows that blacks and Latinos are specifically singled out for pretextual stops, in part, because of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Operation Pipeline program, which, since 1984, has trained local police officers in pretextual traffic stop techniques—including considering race—when deciding which drivers to pull over for searches. Law enforcement officials from numerous Colorado municipalities have received Operation Pipeline training in recent years, DEA records show. Among them were Aurora, Colorado Springs and Denver, all municipalities where people have complained of aggressive, biased policing.
Denver Police Department (DPD) Deputy Chief Matt Murray acknowledged that pretextual traffic stops were once part of police practice in the city, but said the practice changed in 2006, when the department enacted a policy that bans racial profiling.
“[Pretextual traffic stops] have not been allowed for a long, long, long time,” Murray said. “But culture eats policy for lunch. You can write a policy that says, ‘Don’t do this,’ but if the cultural outcome rewards it, then it will continue. A lot of the reform we have been undergoing here in Denver has been cultural change.”
Murray said that, given the department’s anti-bias policy, he doesn’t know why DPD officers still receive Operation Pipeline training, but assumes there are other components of the program the department finds useful. Despite any supplemental training that officers receive, he said they are expected to follow the department’s policy prohibiting racial profiling.
Racial disparities in law enforcement also stem from other controversial police policies and practices, such as Stop and Frisk, in which officers use pedestrian stops to pat-down people they consider suspicious; and Broken Windows policing, whereby officers crack down on minor offenses, such as vandalism, as a means of keeping serious crimes at bay. Many in law enforcement view these practices as effective crime-fighting tools, yet critics contend they’re rooted in racial profiling. Epp suggested implicit bias also is a factor.
“The bias that’s in the heads of the officers out on the street making decisions, and the investigatory or pretextual-stop practice, are the essential elements that produce the racial disparities that we see in who is stopped,” he said.
Aggressive policing and mental health
From the numerous times he was stopped, Taylor received eight tickets—all for minor traffic violations—and was always allowed to drive away. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave those traffic stops unscathed. He struggles with anxiety and is hypervigilant about possible police encounters to this day.
“(I know) that I can get stopped at any moment. … It’s definitely a thought when I wake up. ‘Am I going to get stopped today? I need to be prepared for it to happen,’” Taylor said. He checks to make sure his license, car insurance and title are in order every time he drives, in case he’s pulled over by police.
“It’s a constant thought. I feel like some cops might run in my house right now for doing this interview. You just don’t know the boundaries of what they can and can’t do.”
Such emotional stress is not unusual, according to Monnica Williams, PhD, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut and director of the Culture and Mental Health Disparities Lab. Williams is one of a handful of psychologists in the country studying the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and racism. That connection is known as race-based traumatic stress, or racial trauma.
“There’s a whole range of treatment people might get from the police,” Williams said. “On one end, there’s micro-aggression, and on the other end, there is really traumatizing violence. It’s really sort of the combination of these things that result in traumatization.”
“We’re learning more and more that it’s usually not just one thing that causes trauma,” she added. “It’s really having multiple things happen to a person.”
Increasingly, studies indicate that people who suffer racism and discrimination can develop a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and even PTSD. Other studies show that experiencing racism can be associated with myriad physical illnesses, such as hypertension and heart disease.
Hypervigilance—a symptom of PTSD that can make those affected feel as if they are constantly on guard—takes a toll as well. A 2013 study found that African American adults reported higher levels of vigilance than whites; and while vigilance led to sleeping difficulties across all races, African Americans reported more difficulty sleeping than whites.
“I have done lots of evaluations on folks like this, and I’m even saddened to hear them describe to me in detail how they’ve been stopped by police, how they’ve been searched, how police have torn up their cars looking for drugs and how they’ve been cavity-searched for no reason,” Williams said.
“These are professionals. These are guys who own businesses, who happen to drive nice cars, but who are black and get continually harassed by the police. So no wonder they’re traumatized—they have been basically sexually violated by the police just for being black and driving. If this were happening to white women, no one would stand for it.”
A 2014 study by researchers at Columbia and Yale universities found that discriminatory pedestrian stops can also take a psychological toll on targeted populations. The researchers assessed New York City’s stop-and-frisk policing practice (ruled in 2013 by a federal judge to have unconstitutionally targeted blacks and Latinos) and its impact on the mental health of young, urban men. The researchers found that, although a majority of the study participants (interviewed between September 2012 and March 2013) were not arrested as a result of their stop-and-frisk encounters, many still experienced anxiety and mental trauma as a result. The more times study participants had encounters with police—and the more intrusive the encounters, including police use of force—the higher their levels of anxiety and trauma.
The study—which pointed out that, nationally, these stops are often characterized by police using physical violence and racially or sexually degrading remarks—concluded that African American men were stopped more than any other ethnic group, and experienced higher levels of trauma.
Researchers have identified a connection between racist experiences and PTSD, known as race-based traumatic stress injury (RBTSI). But RBTSI is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (more commonly known as the DSM).
“We’re actually kind of socialized not to see racism and not to talk about it," Williams said. "So, a white person that doesn’t experience racism really doesn’t know what you’re talking about because they haven’t seen it. It hasn’t happened to them unless they have a significant other or a family member of a stigmatized group, it’s really not on their radar.”
Taylor has not been diagnosed with PTSD or RBTSI, but he was diagnosed with anxiety after he began driving. For years, he didn’t realize that a major cause of his anxiety was his interactions with police.
“When you’re young, you don’t understand what anxiety is. … I had no idea that I would be pulled over like that as soon as I started driving,” Taylor said. “And because of that, because I had no reference point, I thought being pulled over by cops was normal.”
Taylor’s perspective, though, changed once he entered college and broadened his social circle. That’s when he realized that when his white acquaintances drove, they usually didn’t have any encounters with police, even when they broke the law.
Race, policing and data
The recent increase in attention to the killings by police officers of (often unarmed) black men around the country—largely due to the proliferation of people capturing the acts on cell phone video—has turned the role of race in policing into a national discussion, with many questioning how large a role racial profiling plays in these encounters.
- Blacks (men and women) are more likely to be arrested or issued summonses.
- Once arrested, blacks were more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to receive jail time.
In Denver, activists in communities comprised primarily of people of color have maintained that police continue to racially profile blacks and Latinos. (A recent Office of the Independent Monitor report found that black and brown people are significantly more likely to be shot by police.) They have long said the problem needs a lot more attention and study.
The city collected data on traffic and pedestrian stops in 2002 and 2003 (and part of 2001, preliminarily) under a state mandate, but when the mandate ended, so did data collection. For both full years data was collected, the drivers and pedestrians whom police officers perceived as black or Latino were searched at higher rates than those officers perceived to be white. (The one exception was pedestrian stops where consent was given to be searched.)
Lisa Calderón, co-chair of the Denver chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum (CLF), and Taylor’s mother, said although activist groups like CLF had long pushed for data collection to resume, Denver police resisted until last summer.
Murray, though, has another view of DPD’s attitude towards collecting data again.
“I guess different people will have different takes on this, [but] the results were not so stark that the legislature felt that they needed to continue data [collection],” he said. “We didn’t resist doing it in the first place, and we didn’t resist continuing to do it. But the efforts stopped when the results were not catastrophic.”
After years of criticism from activist groups and a recommendation by Denver City Auditor Timothy O’Brien, Denver police last summer agreed to resume collecting demographic data on traffic and pedestrian stops, which would offer some insight into police interactions with people of color. DPD Chief Robert White said during an August 2016 press conference that the information collected will likely include the age, race and gender of the people stopped.
“Not only do we want to see when people are getting stopped and why they’re getting stopped; we want to see the outcome of the stops. That’s really important,” White said at the time.
Deborah Thomas, PhD, a professor of geography and environmental sciences at University of Colorado Denver who helped lead Denver’s original data collection effort, is glad the practice is resuming but cautions data alone won’t tell the entire story.
“What it can’t do is say that there are challenging relationships between the police and a particular neighborhood or community, or a subset of people within that community,” she said. “So it needs to be augmented with other data collection mechanisms, surveys or focus groups and community meetings to be used to its fullest potential.”
A committee made up of DPD officers and community members, including Murray and Calderón, meets weekly to determine what demographic data collection for traffic and pedestrian stops in Denver should look like this time around. The group has selected the Center for Policing Equity to help work through the process and is finalizing a contract with the organization. Once the committee has drafted a plan, members will present it to the community and police union for input.
In neighboring Aurora, the police department collects some demographic data, but not across the board, said Metro Division Chief Kevin Flynn. For example, the department’s database tracks the race of people the police interview in the field, but it doesn’t track the race of drivers in traffic stops. (The driver’s race is noted, however, on any summonses that may be issued.)
“That’s one of the things we are in the process of trying to do, is to find out what data we want to collect and correlate, obviously because of some of these inquiries,” Flynn said. “We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to do that—what new technology we need to try to pull this data in, and make it available. The core of what we’re trying to do is the trust and transparency.”
In Colorado Springs, Lt. Howard Black of the Colorado Springs Police Department said officers there collect demographic data on arrests resulting from traffic stops and field contacts. Officers do not collect demographic data on simple traffic stops, although that information does appear on traffic citations.
As Colorado police departments work to find the best way to serve their communities, Taylor is using creative outlets to cope with anxiety. He has long since moved out of Denver’s Cole neighborhood, where he said all of the traffic stops occurred. He writes songs, creates art pieces, records and edits short films, and dabbles in photography.
But, he thinks about his past police experiences regularly and, when he’s driving, makes it a point to know where police are.
“If I feel like I am unjustly approached, I am prepared for the process that follows,” Taylor said. “But luckily, I live in a place where the police culture is changing.”
Nowadays, he said, “I actually enjoy getting an opportunity to speak to officers in passing,” such as during his job as a restaurant server, or in passing while walking around his college campus.
“Holding onto outdated grudges isn't productive. We should be looking for common ground to build on.”