Experts: Black people, cops can be anxious during encounters

The video seems clear: Patrick Lyoya disobeyed an officer during a traffic stop, tried to run, then fought with the officer over his Taser before the officer fatally shot him at Grand Rapids, Michigan.

For a number of black men and women, resisting arrest in encounters with police for even minor traffic checks has been deadly. Experts say the anxiety levels of those arrested and even the officers involved can be high, adding to the tension.

The 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the 2014 strangulation death of Eric Garner by a New York officer, and the shooting death of Michael Brown the same year by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, are among the high-profile encounters that have proven deadly for black men.

A store employee called police, saying Floyd allegedly tried to smuggle a counterfeit $20 bill. Police arrested Garner on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes. An officer confronted Brown and a companion as they walked to Brown’s home from a convenience store. Brown was shot after getting into a fight with the officer. The three men were unarmed.

“Because of the way police are typically portrayed, young men of color can be anxious when arrested,” said Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. “’Am I going to take a ticket? Am I going to be arrested?’ They may believe they are going to be abused. Often they come into these interactions thinking they are going to be bullied.

In 2015, a white police officer in Columbia, South Carolina, arrested Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, for a broken brake light. Bystander video captured the two falling to the ground after the officer hit Scott with a Taser. The officer then shot Scott as he tried to flee.

In Lyoya’s case, some – including his family and their high-profile lawyer, Ben Crump – have said the 26-year-old Congolese refugee was killed for having a license plate that did not belong to the vehicle. Although that was why the officer arrested Lyoya, Johnson said, it was not why Lyoya was killed.

“It’s one of the disconnects or misunderstandings between the police and the public,” Johnson said. “If you look a little deeper, that’s not what happened. (Lyoya) had several opportunities to comply with the agent’s instructions. This use of lethal force has nothing to do with a traffic violation and everything to do with (Lyoya) actively resisting arrest.

Lyoya’s actions led “down the path that ultimately ended in lethal force,” Johnson added.

Grand Rapids police released video of the April 4 arrest Wednesday, including the officer’s vehicle and body camera, a bystander’s cell phone and a doorbell camera. The videos show the brief chase on foot and a struggle as the white officer repeatedly tells Lyoya to stop. At one point, Lyoya has her hand on the officer’s stun gun, and the officer yells at her to let go.

The fight ended when the officer shot Lyoya in the head while Lyoya was face down, with the officer straddling him.

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color of Change, a national racial justice organization, said officers were often scared given the dangers of arrests. But that doesn’t deny that black motorists are suffering for showing or expressing their justified fears at traffic stops, he said.

“Looking at police culture, there’s just this pushback to the notion that the police are rooted in white supremacy and have been a tool of white supremacy,” Roberts said. “And so there is a kind of denial of why black people would have this fear. You have already criminalized the person when you make a pretext stop. Your assumption is going to be that this is just a confirmation of their guilt, this fear.

Roberts added that these dynamics have increasingly led cities, prosecutors and police to adopt policies that minimize or end stops for minor infractions.

Skin color and experiences could skew how all parties interpret interactions and confrontations between black Americans and white officers, said Paul Bergman, professor emeritus of law at UCLA.

“Cultural narratives can cause white officers as well as black officers to anticipate trouble when the person they’re arresting is black,” he said.

In Lyoya’s case, “was he more likely to be arrested because he was black?” Bergmann asked. “If he wasn’t black, would it be more of a minor offense and would the policeman think he had better things to do?”

The situation escalated when Lyoya failed to produce a driver’s license and tried to run away. This likely aroused the officer’s suspicions, Bergman said.

But Lyoya also might have believed his best option was to flee, he said.

“Maybe he’s just thinking about escaping a threatening situation,” Bergman added. “Legally, you are expected to comply with legal requirements. The place to discuss if you think it’s illegal is later. We are supposed to fight these arguments in the courts, not on the streets.

Amara Enyia, head of policy and research for the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations, said the fear black motorists feel is rooted in generations of adversarial relationships with police .

When stops for license plates, broken taillights or inappropriate lane changes turn into violent arrests or deadly encounters, departments turn to old solutions, such as anti-bias training, that don’t failed to tell the difference, said Enyia.

“You only have to wonder how many billions and billions of dollars it takes to drive that kind of bias in someone,” she said. “Instead of making structural changes to the entire system, you have to rely on the benevolence, goodwill or altruism of a police officer to stay alive in what is otherwise a routine traffic stop.”


Williams and Morrison are members of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Williams reported from West Bloomfield, Michigan. Morrison reported from New York.

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