The Fatal Costs of Drug Interdiction

Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail-light and shot while he reached for his registration. While there has already been much discussion of the shooting, one point is missing from the story: the police stop was likely a pretext to engage in drug interdiction.

Whether or not the reason for the stop was race-based (more on that later), the goal of the stop was to search for drugs. Although he was pulled over for a busted tail-light, the primary purpose of the stop was not to write him a traffic ticket, then release him to go on his way. The purpose was to search inside Castile’s car for drugs, even though the police officer had no evidence that Castile had any drugs on him. And it is this aspect of the encounter—a police officer, arbitrarily stopping someone intending to search them for drugs, and finding an armed individual inside the car, that inevitably produced the deadly result.

How do I know the officer was looking for drugs? In their magisterial book, Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship (2014), authors Charles R Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald P. Haider-Markel detail that there are two different types of traffic stop. One occurs when the car is speeding about ten miles per hour over the speed limit. Those stops are genuinely intended to give the driver a traffic ticket. They are brief and polite, and people of all races find them a minor irritant but usually a polite and dignified experience. Drug stops occur on a pretext, and any minor vehicular violation will do: two miles per hour over the limit; failing to signal when turning; or a broken tail-light. This last, of course, was the justification for stopping Castile. And Epp and his co-authors also note that African Americans disproportionately bear the burden of this disparate style of policing. The decision to use pretext is overwhelmingly made on the basis of race.

If he was following ordinary police training for this sort of investigatory stop, the Officer approached Philander Castile to look for drugs, or at least to keep Castile occupied long enough so that a K-9 unit could arrive to sniff around the car. To do so, he would have to keep Castile talking, and perhaps make the process onerous enough that Castile would consent to a search of the car, including the trunk. It is reasonable to think that, approaching to look for drugs, the Officer’s guard was up in a way it would not have been had he been issuing a ticket. The act of looking for drugs, and perhaps the race of the driver, might have made the Officer more likely to suspect Castile was a drug dealer, and so more likely to be dangerous. The officer’s improper belief was unfortunately bolstered when Castile alerted the Officer to his legal possession of a gun: so the Officer shot Castile dead.

The problem precipitating so many black deaths at the hands of the police may be racial profiling. But underlying profiling is a style of drug interdiction that convinces the police that ordinary civilians are potentially dangerous drug dealers. In promoting this form of drug interdiction, the police treat whole categories of people as a means to an end, an object of suspicion rather than an object of concern. Castile was an object in the way of a car search; worse, he turned out (legally) to have a gun. If racism did not kill him, a (racially biased) technique of policing likely did.

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