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There is reason for black women to fear traffic stops

Abuse of power by police can affect any black driver who gets stopped

Not long after I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last August for a yearlong fellowship, a friend back in Memphis, Tennessee, asked me how I liked the city.

I raved about the city’s walkability and the beauty of Boston’s subways. Compared with Memphis’ horribly inefficient bus systems, the T is a mass-transit marvel.

Memphis, I told my friend, was still home, but Cambridge felt like freedom. I couldn’t articulate exactly what I meant until I moved back to Memphis earlier this month.

My dad picked me up at the airport in my car, which I’d left behind. We loaded my luggage, and as if I were 16 again, I eagerly offered to drive. It’d been weeks since I sat behind the wheel, the master of my fate, the captain of my … well … car.

But instead of feeling like I was free to move about the country (apologies to Southwest Airlines), I felt trapped.

Suddenly driving a car wasn’t as much a mark of independence as it was an invitation to police scrutiny. And where I might have been able to fool myself into thinking my gender was a shield from unwarranted police attention and even abuse, recent events rudely remind me it is not.

My return to motoring coincided with the Aug. 10 release of the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the badly behaving Baltimore Police Department, which was under investigation following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries he suffered while in police custody.

One incident in the report stood out: The public strip search of a woman driver during a traffic stop for a broken headlight, even though public strip searches are expressly forbidden.

“The female officer then put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra,” reads page 32 of the 163-page report. “Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity.” Police found nothing and released her with instructions to fix her headlight.

The last time I was stopped by police while driving in Memphis, it was because the officer said my driver’s side headlight wasn’t working. When I expressed incredulity, he leaned over, tapped the glass cover and said the light was working again.

I was rattled that rainy night 18 months ago. Last week, I was distraught after I read as much as I could stomach of the DOJ report. In Baltimore as in several other cities the DOJ has investigated, police stop a disproportionate share of black drivers. “African Americans accounted for 82 percent of all BPD vehicle stops, compared to only 60 percent of the driving age population in the City and 27 percent of the driving age population in the greater metropolitan area,” the DOJ report found. Some of the more high-profile incidents of police brutality involve people on the street, such as Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

But street stops represent only 1 percent of police contact. Most involuntary police contact comes through traffic stops. In 2011, the most recent year for which federal data was available, more than 21 million drivers were stopped by police.

More black drivers than white or Hispanic drivers were pulled over, but white drivers were less likely to be searched or get a ticket. Perhaps not surprisingly, white drivers are also more likely to report that the officer behaved properly.

While most of the highly publicized traffic stops that end badly involve black men, black women are hardly immune. For proof, watch the video that emerged from a July 2015 traffic stop in Austin, Texas. The white police officer is caught on the dash cam slamming Breaion King, a black school teacher half his size, onto the ground in a fast-food restaurant parking lot. He’d stopped the 26-year-old for speeding.

It’s unlikely that a police encounter would end violently or fatally, but as a mounting pile of videos reveals, it happens with disturbing regularity. So far this year, more than 675 people have been killed by police. Nearly 25 percent of those people were black, although African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the nation’s population.

By taking the train in Cambridge, I eliminated hundreds of chances to come in contact with police. Shelving my car keys meant setting aside the anxiety that tightens my throat every time I see a police car on the road or worse, in my rearview mirror.

Mass transit is clearly an economic justice issue, but as long as police disproportionately stop black and brown drivers, it’s a criminal justice issue, too.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas