Like a number of recent high-profile cases of police brutality, the fatal encounter between Tyre Nichols and Memphis, Tennessee, police officers began with what appeared to be a simple traffic stop.
Nichols is one of the hundreds of people including Patrick Lyoya, Daunte Wright, Jayland Walker, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and Walter Scott who were killed after being stopped by police for traffic violations.
Traffic stops are among the most common interactions between police and civilians, and the vast majority of them end uneventfully. But policing experts say Nichols' death again highlights the potential for traffic stops to quickly escalate into violent and even fatal struggles – particularly for people of color – in part, due to the way officers are trained.
"What the encounter shows is just how quickly these encounters can escalate from zero to 100," said Jordan Blair Woods, professor at the University of Arizona College of Law. "It really does raise all sorts of questions about not only just de-escalation tactics during traffic stops and training but what we're allowing police officers to do in the traffic space to begin with."
How often are people killed after traffic stops?
On average, police pull over more than 50,000 people daily and more than 20 million motorists annually, according to the Stanford Open Policing Project. Black drivers are more likely to be stopped and searched, the study found.
Since 2017, more than 600 people have been killed by police after an initial encounter related to a traffic violation or traffic-related offense, according to Mapping Police Violence, which collects data on police killings.
More than a quarter of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black men and women between 2015 and 2021 occurred during traffic stops, an NPR investigation of the killings found.
Why do traffic stops turn violent?
Part of the reason traffic stops can become violent is that officers are trained to view the routine encounters as "especially dangerous" because they "never know who's going to be behind the wheel," Woods said. But his research suggests traffic stops rarely result in random violence, and when they do, it's often because of officers' reactions.
Stops can escalate when officers don't like the way drivers or passengers respond to their commands, a reaction which "is very much tied to perceptions about danger and race," Woods said. He pointed to footage of the stop of Nichols, who was Black, noting how officers can be heard yelling multiple commands at him even though he appears to be complying and restrained.
Memphis police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the department hasn't been able to substantiate its initial statement saying Nichols engaged in reckless driving necessitating a traffic stop.
Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, said this is "something that unfortunately happens a lot where officers are insisting on 100% compliance when they're getting 99%."
Bonds and Woods said that law enforcement, particularly specialized violent crime units like the one linked to Nichols' death, use traffic stops as a pretext to search for evidence of other crimes.
"If that's your intent when you see someone who is a reckless driver or has expired tags, it's going to be a situation where you're maybe even trying to escalate it," Bonds said.
Bonds said it's also important to remember that the stops can cause anxiety for drivers too.
"There's been some criticism about 'why did (Nichols) run?'" she said. "It's really scary and dangerous to just go along and be detained."
How can police make traffic stops safer?
Both Bonds and Woods said police departments and local leaders need to reconsider having armed officers involved in traffic stops.
"The real solutions are not viewing this as an isolated incident and thinking about this as a systemic problem that's occurring across the country," Woods said.
Bonds pointed to cities like Philadelphia which have banned minor traffic stops to reduce negative interactions with police. Virginia passed a similar law in 2020 and Minneapolis police announced a similar policy in 2021.
"What this really comes down to is we just need to limit these interactions between officers and civilians," she said. "I just don't think this is a problem you can train yourself out of."
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Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Breaking News Reporter N'dea Yancey-Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tyre Nichols death: Why experts say routine traffic stops turn deadly