Leader Bart Worden

Systemic Racism On the Roadways

Have you ever been pulled over by the police? I have been on a number of occasions. The stops have typically been for speeding or making illegal turns but one remarkable stop happened on an afternoon when I was driving my wife home from work. I wasn’t speeding and had not made any suspicious turns. My registration was up to date and the car had passed inspection two weeks earlier, so I was puzzled by the stop. I was informed that one of the rear brake lights was out and given a ticket for that. I was good with being stopped – how is one to know about a taillight not working? I was incensed about the ticket, though, as I felt I had done nothing wrong. I replaced the bulb and brought the receipt to the courthouse and the charges were dropped.

Apparently I was lucky. In the New York Times article on October 31st, “Pulled Over: What to Know About Deadly Police Traffic Stops” was this statistic: “Over the last five years, The Times found, the police killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were not wielding a gun or a knife or under pursuit for a violent crime.”

The article noted that “traffic stops — which are often motivated by hidden budgetary considerations because of the ticket revenue they generate — are the most common interactions between police officers and the public. Yet the police consider them among the most dangerous things they do.”

“Many of the vehicle stops The Times reviewed began for common traffic violations like broken taillights, or for questioning about nonviolent offenses like shoplifting. From there, things escalated. More than three-quarters of the motorists were killed trying to flee. In dozens of encounters, officers stepped in front of moving vehicles or reached inside car windows, then fired their guns, claiming self-defense.”

We need to resist the backsliding if we are to help usher in the positive changes we seek, and we would do well to bolster our

This last item really struck a chord in me. On October 17, 2010 Danroy Henry, who was a player on the Pace University football team went to an after-game celebration with friends. The place they went to is a 10 minute drive from my house in suburban Westchester County in New York. Police were called after two men (unrelated to the group Henry was with) got into a shoving incident. The bar was cleared and Henry, who was driving some friends, was told by one officer to move his car. When he did so, another officer who apparently thought they were trying to flee the scene, jumped onto the hood of Henry’s car and fired four shots, hitting Henry and another occupant.

Danroy Henry was shot under suspicion of fleeing a crime scene where no crime was detected. That’s right: no one was arrested for the incident that resulted in the police being called. By the time the police arrived whatever had gone down was finished so the police had nothing to respond to.

After being shot, Henry was pulled from the car, handcuffed and left face-down on the pavement. Officers did not attempt to treat him and prevented onlookers from coming to his aid. He died from his wounds. Meanwhile, the officer who shot Henry was treated at the scene for a knee injury. 

That same officer who killed Danroy Henry was later cleared of all wrongdoing by a Grand Jury and named “Officer of the Year” by his police department’s Police Benevolent Association. You can read all about it in this USA Today article: “You know George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s stories. 10 years after his death, you should also know DJ Henry’s.

Henry was the victim of a racist system – a system that holds the protection of police officers as a higher priority than the safety of the people they are sworn to protect. A system that, rather than admit to mistakes, doubles down on justifications for wrongful actions. A system that rewards police aggression toward suspected lawbreakers regardless of the severity of law involved. 

And the New York Times article reminds us that expectations of voters add considerable fuel to the fire. Municipalities all over the country have been under financial duress and have found that motor vehicle fines (and especially the penalties added to the fines) can bring in additional revenue. In a 2020 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, “The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government in New York” the authors note: “In 2018, New York state and local governments collected at least $1.21 billion in criminal and traffic fines and fees as revenue.” Hundreds of dollars are routinely added to each conviction and this income is used to support government operations. 

Whether or not police departments put pressure on their officers to make arrests that will lead to additional income for the department, the pressure to make traffic stops at all puts Black motorists in particular at considerable risk of injury or death. 

From the NYT article: “Trainers often use misleading statistics and gory dashcam videos of drivers gunning down officers during traffic stops to teach cadets to be hypervigilant… There are genuine risks, but studies have found that an officer’s chances of ending up dead at a vehicle stop are less than 1 in 3.6 million.” That is far less likely than being struck by lightning (1:500,000.) 

And even if the stop results in “only” a ticket the impact of the fines and additional penalties fall especially hard on those who are least financially secure. A few hundred dollars can be life changing when you are already struggling to make rent. 

This week’s Anti-Racism Dialogues:

On 11/8 Hugh Taft-Morales will facilitate a dialogue about When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Culllors. This is the second of 4 sessions.

On 11/10 Jone Johnson Lewis will facilitate a dialogue about Belonging: The Key to Transforming and Maintaining Diversity, Inclusion and Equality at Work by Kathryn Jacob – Jone Johnson Lewis

Also on 11/11 Paul Heymont will facilitate a dialogue about Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Saving the World by Anand Giridharadas. This is the second of two sessions.

Check here to see what else is in the offering: 2021 Anti-Racism Dialogues

Thank you,


This post originally appeared at AEU.org.