On Sunday, a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man, after pulling him over for hanging an air freshener from his rearview mirror. Wright’s death is just the latest instance of police assaulting and killing drivers—specifically, Black men who pose no danger—following a routine traffic stop. Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and Sam DuBose were all shot and killed by police after a traffic stop; none of them posed any danger to the officers who took their lives.
Racism surely plays a role here, but there is another reason so many appalling police shootings involve motorists: Law enforcement officers are taught that routine traffic stops pose extreme danger to their own lives. Courts have seized upon this idea to water down the constitutional rights of drivers, justifying police brutality on the grounds that officers must act quickly to protect themselves against the random violence that always lurks just around the corner.