Police shootings are a transport matter

We awake this morning to yet another police shooting, this in Falcon Heights, where a City of St. Anthony police officer shot Philando Castile following a traffic stop. I’ve been past the site, next to the state fairgrounds, hundreds of times. It is not a problematic area or dangerous neighborhood.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

This is not the first police shooting.  It is not likely to be the last.

Recent shootings are catalogued at The Counted by The Guardian. In 2016 there are 561 killed by the police. We have no good data from more than a few years ago.  Many begin with traffic stops and moving vehicle violations of one form or another. In this case, Castile was driving and pulled over for a broken light.

Cars (and their drivers) kill 30000-40000 people a year in the US (and are way up this past year) and 1.25 Million globally. This is terrible. It is the highest rate among high-income countries. It justifies many things, including engineering safer roads, educating better drivers at the training stage, designing better vehicles and especially driverless cars, ongoing education programs, reduction in drunk driving, and yes enforcement.

But does that enforcement, which should be aimed at making our roads safer, require armed police officers pulling over men of color at a disproportionate rate because one tail light is out, and shooting them? Is this “enforcement” really about traffic safety? Or rather, is this just another way for municipalities to raise money in fines for minor violations, as was done in Ferguson, Missouri, or discourage people “who don’t belong” from traveling on the quiet streets of someone else’s neighborhood.

Looking at The Counted, by my count the following were transport related …

  • July (to date) – 16 people killed by police in the US.  4 involved driving as precipitating factor (Castile, Small, Saavedra-Vargas, Villanueva)
  • June – 95 people killed by police in the US. 32 transport related (Vierra, Hutson, Guardiola, Noble, Chavez-Angles, Anderson, Rogers, Splunge, Core, Lesko, Howard, Hennessey, Makarenko, Shumpert, Delfino, Damon, Rosser, Pointer, Rodriguez, Moore, Williams, Witherspoon, Bursey, Hollis, Sites, Villagomez, Henson, Moran, Shaham, Smith, Johnson, Pigg)
  • I don’t want to go on.


Certainly most of the killed were violent, and committing  serious traffic violations, or otherwise engaged in illegal activities or fleeing the scene of a crime. Perhaps killing them was the only way to subdue them and keep them from immediately harming others (though other countries don’t seem to have this problem in such numbers, why is that?). And certainly, poorly trained police in the heat of the moment afraid of people who look different and armed with deadly force will sometimes make mistakes that they regret. But why are they in that situation to begin with. Why are they poorly trained? Why are they afraid of the other? Why are they using a gun on someone pulled over for a broken tail light rather than backing off a bit, recording the license plate, calling for help and trying to safely get control of the situation?

There is a cycle of violence. People who believe they will be killed by the police, or even jailed for a long period, have little reason to peacefully cooperate. If they think they can get the upper hand, they will be violent. To date in 2016, 53 police have died in line of duty. Police too have reason to be on a hairspring trigger. They believe they should have a “monopoly on the use of force”.  Police and those they are trying to arrest are in a classic prisoner’s dilemma described by game theory, each fearing for their lives are in the equilibrium where it is better to be the one who shoots first rather than the one who is dead. Police know the vast majority of police who do fire first are cleared.

Philando Castile lost a game he probably didn’t realize he was playing. He never should have been shot. There probably was a better way to tell him his tail light was broken then pulling him over and killing him. There probably were better things for the St. Anthony Police to be doing, that would actually save rather than cost lives.