“Hands out the window now or you will be shot!” yelled a patrolman in Bakersfield, Calif., as Marvin Urbina wrestled with inflated airbags after a pursuit ended in a crash.
“I am going to shoot you — what part of that don’t you understand?” threatened an officer in Little Rock, Ark., adding a profanity, as she tried to pry James Hartsfield from his car.
The police officers who issued those warnings had stopped the motorists for common offenses: swerving across double yellow lines, speeding recklessly, carrying an open beer bottle, reported The New York Times. None of the men were armed. Yet within moments of pulling them over, officers fatally shot all three.
The deaths are among a series of seemingly avoidable killings across the United States. Over the past five years, a New York Times investigation found, police officers have killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife, or under pursuit for a violent crime — a rate of more than one a week.
Most of the officers did so with impunity. Only five have been convicted of crimes in those killings, according to a review of the publicly reported cases. Yet local governments paid at least $125 million to resolve about 40 wrongful-death lawsuits and other claims. Many stops began with common traffic violations like broken taillights or running a red light; relative to the population, Black drivers were overrepresented among those killed.
The recurrence of such cases and the rarity of convictions both follow from an overstatement, ingrained in court precedents and police culture, of the danger that vehicle stops pose to officers. Claiming a sense of mortal peril — whether genuine in the moment or only asserted later — has often shielded officers from accountability for using deadly force.
“We get into what I would call anticipatory killings,” said Sim Gill, the district attorney for Salt Lake County, Utah. “We can’t give carte blanche to that.”
Whenever any kind of encounter between law enforcement and citizens ends in a loss of life, it is highly regrettable. When that loss of life is avoidable, it becomes more so. But where the legal standard for justification on the use of force is met, criminal prosecution is not an available remedy to address it.
In case after case, officers said they had feared for their lives. And in case after case, prosecutors declared the killings of unarmed motorists legally justifiable. But The Times reviewed video and audio recordings, prosecutor statements and court documents, finding patterns of questionable police conduct that went beyond recent high-profile deaths of unarmed drivers. Evidence often contradicted the accounts of law enforcement officers.
Dozens of encounters appeared to turn on what criminologists describe as officer-created jeopardy: Officers regularly — and unnecessarily — placed themselves in danger by standing in front of fleeing vehicles or reaching inside car windows, then fired their weapons in what they later said was self-defense. Frequently, officers also appeared to exaggerate the threat.
In many cases, local police officers, state troopers or sheriff’s deputies responded with outsize aggression to disrespect or disobedience — a driver talking back, revving an engine or refusing to get out of a car, what officers sometimes call “contempt of cop.”
fire at a motorist with a suspended license in 2017: “Don’t ram him, shoot him!” he later recounted saying, according to a body-camera recording. Knocking the man off the highway might “tear my cars up!”
Struggling to subdue a driver a few months later, a patrolman in Moundridge, Kan., warned that the man might be reaching for a police sidearm; an officer shot him, another struck his head with the butt of a shotgun and a third pummeled his body with a baton — killing him though he never touched a gun, video records show. And last year a body camera recorded an officer in Las Cruces, N.M., warning a motorist that he would “choke you out, bro,” then pinning him in a headlock. “A good little scrap,” the officer called it, before realizing the man had died.
Some families of the drivers said that their relatives were not blameless. “I don’t have my head buried in the sand,” said Deborah Lilly, whose 29-year-old son, Tyler Hays, had drugs in his car and tried to run away when he was pulled over for tinted windows last year by a sheriff’s deputy in Hamilton County, Tenn. “I am just saying he did not deserve to get shot in the back.” (Over the next three months, the deputy shot at two other unarmed drivers, wounding one.)
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