On June 27, a minor traffic stop claimed the life of a black man.
Jayland Walker, 25, was arrested by police in Akron, Ohio for unspecified traffic and equipment violations. It took off, and police later said Walker fired as he walked away from officers. During the chase of almost 3 minutes, he left his car, which was still driving.
Eight police officers fired approximately 90 shots at Walker after attempting to shock him. A gun was found inside his car, but he was shot dead after fleeing and no gun was found on him when police arrived and handcuffed him. Walker was pronounced dead by medics at the scene shortly thereafter.
Police released body camera footage of the shooting nearly a week later on July 3, and widespread protests forced the cancellation of July 4 weekend events in the city.
On Friday morning, the Summit County Medical Examiner released a autopsy report concluding that Walker was shot or grazed 46 times by Akron police.
Walker is just one of almost 600 people killed since 2017 after being arrested by the police for a minor offence. Earlier this year, a Grand Rapids, Michigan police officer was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old black man and Congolese refugee. The officer threw a traffic stop over an unregistered license plate and, after a brief struggle, shot Lyoya in the back of the head.
Using deadly force on an unarmed person person leaking is unconstitutional. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that police officers cannot use lethal force in these situations unless the police have probable cause that a threat was apparent. But that caution leaves plenty of leeway for police to say they encountered a threat, and Akron police are sure to cite the alleged gunshot fired from Walker’s car, even if it was later found to be unarmed.
“Police discretion is so broad that they can justify their actions many times over in one way or another,” said Miltonette Craig, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. “Unless we have things like body camera footage and bystander video recordings to piece things together, their discretion works in their favor in many cases.”
And the act of fleeing itself is, in some states, a crime. This is the case in Ohio, where Walker was killed. Experts say this not only triggers some police defenses for the use of lethal force, but it escalates into simple flight offenses in high-stakes situations where a lot can go wrong.
“There is an example of the law [that] is out of step with reality,” said Nikki Jones, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The law does not protect [for Walker], it provides protection for officers who use force,” Jones said. “And the officers’ perception was that Jayland Walker was a threat, but that doesn’t mean that Jayland Walker saw them as a threat.”
In Michigan, where Lyoya was killed, fleeing and evading police is considered a Class H felony, punishable by up to two years in prison.
“There’s reason to think that when laws classify behavior as criminal, enforcement of those laws escalates,” said TaLisa Carter, an assistant professor at American University in the Department of Justice, Law, and criminology. “Just like when the laws relax around certain offences, the way the police respond to those actions also relaxes.”
The legal definition of when the police can use lethal force is important, but the mindset of many police officers toward fugitive suspects remains dangerous even in states where it is not a crime. In Maryland, fleeing from police is a misdemeanor, but in February Baltimore police fatally shot Donnell Rochester, a black teenager, while he was driving while fleeing a traffic stop. As the department said the car drove towards the officer and hit him, body camera footage showed Rochester driving and the officer having never been hit. Early police accounts also gave conflicting stories about what really happened around the fatal incident in Rochester, casting doubt.
Some cities, such as Washington, have instituted “no pursuit” policies that would prohibit most police car chases. The policy, which emerged from a reform commission following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, cited the case of Karon Hylton-Brown, a black man who rode a scooter while being chased by police in DC and died after being hit by a driver. Jeffrey Award died after being hit by a DC police cruiser in May 2018 while riding his dirt bike. The family filed a lawsuit saying the police engaged in a pursuit and blocked him on purpose, resulting in his death.
Chicago also instituted its no pursuit on foot politics in June. The change came after the high-profile 2021 shooting of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old who was fatally shot by a Chicago cop.
Although Ohio’s laws remain strict, there have been small steps to change how police pursue fugitives.
In 2019, Republican Governor Mike DeWine demand that the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board is creating a new law enforcement standard for car chases. The police advisory board was created in 2016 when DeWine was the state’s attorney general.
The advisory council was tasked with issuing guidelines to local departments and policy recommendations that police should consider when developing their own standards for vehicle pursuits.
“Whichever agency is tasked with responding to traffic stops, it’s critical that our goal is that everyone involved is alive at the end of the interaction.”
– TaLisa Carter, assistant professor at American University
Some of the recommendations included police stopping vehicle chases to keep officers and bystanders safe.
“This law that exists in Ohio can be used to say that they acted within the framework given to me by the legislature, where they will not be disciplined,” Craig told HuffPost. “If you pass a law that gives too much power in terms of decision-making and the shields that an officer may have against some time of disciplinary action or criminal prosecution, it looks like they can get away with the behavior they want.”
In December, Ohio lawmakers also pushed the legislation ban the police completely to arrest drivers for minor violations.
Carter, who agreed that officers should not be part of stops and should have better discretion over vehicle and foot pursuits, stressed that stops for minor violations should in no way result in death. “Whichever agency is responsible for responding to traffic stops, it’s critical that our goal is that everyone involved is alive at the end of the interaction,” Carter said.
Police experts are always looking for ways to circumvent deadly chases and deadly traffic stops. One way, according to Kelcie Ralph, a transportation specialist at Rutgers University, are traffic cameras.
Roadside checks are the most common interactions between police and citizens, Ralph said. And a cop doesn’t need to be involved every time someone may have a minor violation with their vehicle.
“This is disproportionate policing and there are a lot of traffic stops for very minor, non-safety related issues. It wouldn’t add any in-person human interaction. It would just be a camera,” Ralph told HuffPost. “The police make a lot of choices about who they arrest. There is a tendency to pull more on minority communities, it is not surprising that the same laws are not influenced in the same way in affluent white communities as they are in black and brown communities.
Criminal justice advocacy groups have proposed other ways to remove police from traffic stops.
In 2021, the Vera Institute of Justice published a report where the group said “non-police first responders” should be specifically tasked with handling minor traffic violations and stops.
“Cities can replace the police with unarmed civilian traffic response units, housed in a municipal transportation or public works department and staffed with transportation and mediation experts,” the report said.
Last year, Berkeley, Calif., municipal elected officials voted adopt a recommendation that police no longer focus on traffic stops for low-level violations, such as not wearing a seatbelt or having expired tags. The suggestions came in a “reform package” which was passed after the city cited disproportionate shutdowns of black and brown people in the area.
These policies could have far-reaching effects on the people who live in these cities.
“[A traffic stop] doesn’t feel good for people who are being watched, and it has the potential to escalate,” Craig said. “We don’t want people to be afraid that something as small as this could lead to their death, as we have seen.”
A funeral was held for Walker on Wednesday. No city official was present. Eight officers who fired the shots at Walker have been placed on administrative leave.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about fears surrounding minor police stops. The statement was made by Miltonette Craig, not TaLisa Carter.
The Huffington Gt