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Monday, August 3, 2015

How self-driving cars will improve race relations in America

On July 10, a trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol initiated a traffic stop of a woman for allegedly failing to use her turn signal before changing lanes. What makes this case stand out from the thousands of other police traffic stops that occur throughout the country each day is the current state of race relations in America. How did this seemingly routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas end with an arrest, and ultimately spark a homicide investigation?

To unravel the mysteries surrounding that question it’s important to first know that the 30-year-old Texas State Trooper who initiated that traffic stop is Caucasian, and the now deceased woman he pulled over was African-American. According to police dashcam footage, Officer Brian Encinia can be heard telling the driver, 28-year-old Sandra Bland, that the reason for the stop was because she had failed to signal a lane change. Reviewing the tape, it’s unclear exactly what Bland said precisely at that moment, yet Encinia later acknowledges that Bland is irritated. He then questioned her regarding her apparent displeasure with the situation. Bland responded by stating that she was indeed irritated at being pulled over. She went on to say that the reason she changed lanes without signaling first was in response to the manner in which the officer had quickly accelerated his patrol car behind her vehicle just prior to the stop. According to Bland, she was simply trying to get out of the officer’s way.

Routine traffic stop culminates in criminal investigation

What happened next is now the subject of a joint criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI . At one point in their discussion Encinia asked Bland to extinguish her cigarette, which she vehemently refused. After a heated exchange, the officer then ordered Bland to exit her vehicle. Bland refused to comply once more, and a physical altercation ensued. It culminated with the officer deploying his stun gun and reportedly slamming Bland to the ground before another officer placed her in handcuffs. The latter end of that fight took place out of the dashcam’s view, so it’s unclear if officers actually slammed Bland’s head on the ground. However, a bystander to the arrest provided a cellphone video to the news media that reveals audio recordings of Bland complaining about an injury to her head as a result of the altercation.  

Just three days later, jailers would discover Bland’s lifeless body inside her cell at the Hempstead County, Texas jail. Authorities were holding Bland there in isolation on charges related to her altercation with police. Bland reportedly died from asphyxiation sometime in the early morning hours of July 13. According to the Waller County Prosecutor, Bland’s death was a result of a suicide by hanging using a plastic trash bag.

Bland’s death has rekindled a national debate on whether some police officers treat minority motorists differently than their white counterparts during traffic stops. The incident has also sparked question on whether police officers have a duty to avoid the unnecessary escalation of force when non-compliant motorists disobey or disrespect them.  Although, both issues are important, a new technology currently under development may inadvertently solve both problems. In fact, this technology might also hold the key to improving the overall state of race relations across America. 
Enter the self-driving car. Since 2009, Google has been working to develop autonomously driving vehicle technology through its Self-Driving Car Project. Their goal is to reduce traffic accidents throughout the world and offer transportation to people regardless of their ability to drive. So far, Google self-driving cars, or SDCs, have collectively racked up nearly 1 million miles on the road with only 14 accidents. According to the program’s director, Chris Urmson, human drivers were at fault for each of those accidents. In fact, Google says that 94 percent of all vehicle accidents in the U.S. contain some element of driver error.

Google is not the only company looking to get into the self-driving car business. On July 20, a consortium of traffic safety proponents, engineering researchers and automakers, launched a $6.5 million experiment located on the University of Michigan’s campus with the mission of testing and developing SDCs. The 23-acre testbed is a collaboration between the Transportation Research Institute, the Michigan Department of Transportation and three large automakers: Ford, General Motors and Toyota. Dubbed, “M City”, this state-of-the art facility is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The project contains all of the trappings of an urban environment that a human driver might expect to see while driving in a populated area. M  City observes its own traffic laws, though they are patterned on similar laws found in real world setting. M City even contains pedestrian and cyclist traffic to provide an added sense of realism for SDC developers.

Why Self-Driving Cars are important for cases like Sandra Bland’s

In addition to being a college graduate, Sandra Bland was also a supporter of the grass-roots protest movement known as “#BlackLivesMatter”. The organization first came to prominence at the end of 2014 in the wake of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri. The movement picked up momentum into 2015 after the deaths of Eric Gardner in New York, and Freddy Gray in Baltimore, Maryland. Sandra Bland posted several videos of herself onto her Facebook account in support of the movement. In one of her “#SandySpeaks” videos, Bland openly discussed the need for white people to understand that black people are treated differently than their white counterparts in America.
The reason why this matters is because self-driving cars almost never make the same mistakes that would lead to a traffic stop in the first place. SDCs are programmed to observe all applicable traffic laws; including signaling before turning. It’s very likely that Trooper Encinia and Sandra Bland might have never met if she had been traveling in a self-driving car.

Another way that SDCs might improve race relations is in the way that some municipalities across America treat traffic infractions as a legitimate source of revenue. In the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri riots, questions were raised about the seemingly disproportionate amount of white police officers servicing the predominately black smaller communities that surround St. Louis. An in-depth examination of this phenomenon revealed that many of the 90 municipalities that comprise St. Louis County derived a great deal of their public revenue from fines, court costs and other fees. A large percentage of which originated as a result of traffic tickets. In fact, that investigation revealed that some of the municipalities in the surrounding St. Louis suburbs garnered 40 percent of their total revenue from fines and fees collected via their municipal court systems.

Some police departments use traffic stops as a means to fill municipal coffers

The most stunning examples of how traffic tickets helped to fund these smaller municipal courts, city councils and their attendant police forces can be found in a January 2015 white paper issued by a Missouri public advocacy group called “ArchCity Defenders”. The paper highlighted the fact that many small municipalities in St. Louis County shared a portion of their borders with a major interstate. According to the white paper, police officers working for those municipalities patrolled those areas and issued tickets to motorists so frequently that it is hard to believe that they were not observing policies encouraged by the municipalities that stood to benefit from that revenue. The report found that along one particular stretch of I-70 in St. Louis County, it was theoretically possible for a person driving that route who never signaled prior to changing lanes to receive 16 separate citations from 16 different municipalities. Even worse, a failure to pay the fine or appear at a hearing for any one of those citations could potentially result in the issuance of a “bench-warrant” for the driver’s arrest.

Poor people unduly burdened by expensive traffic tickets

For many minority residents living within these types of communities receiving a traffic ticket is tantamount to a jail sentence. Unable to pay the hefty fines, court costs and fees, many defendants simply continue to drive while living in constant fear of being pulled over and hauled to jail. This unfortunate reality creates an endemic antipathy towards police among many members of those communities who also happen to be minorities. Many of those ticketed minorities view the police, and the municipal courts they represent, as the ultimate violation of the “social contract” first introduced by the 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that citizens within an ideal Republic could not be forced into a community, but rather they must voluntarily agree to form a government for the purposes of mutual benefit. Today, this theory is recognized as the core meaning behind the often misused police phrase, “to protect and serve”. Far too many black and brown people view the real job of the police within their communities is to protect the white residents and serve the residents of color with traffic tickets.

The result of the growing perception that the police intentionally target black and brown members of the community for traffic tickets has created an atmosphere of antipathy and distrust towards police. Evidence of this is apparent in many viral posts regarding Sandra Bland’s case currently circulating on social media sites. Many within the black community remain unconvinced that Bland’s death was a suicide. Some pundits have even gone so far as to make allegations that the police actually killed Bland, and that she was already dead when presented for her mug shot. There is sufficient evidence to disprove both assertions, nevertheless, these allegations point to alarming public perceptions that likely would not have occurred if Bland had been traveling in a self- driving car.

The “thin side of the wedge” for many police searches begins with a traffic violation stop

Finally, there is the matter of the officer ordering Bland to exit her vehicle. In the landmark Supreme Court ruling Pennsylvania vs. Mimms, the court ruled that a police officer does not violate the search and seizure limitations placed on them by the Fourth Amendment when they order a driver out of their vehicle and conduct a pat down search for weapons. However, police only gain those broad powers if they have first lawfully detained an individual during a traffic violation, and they have a reasonable suspicion to believe they may be in danger.
For many residents of minority communities these so-called, “Mimms” searches represent the “thin side of the wedge” with regards to racial profiling and unlawful searches. Too often, black and brown members of some communities view the traffic stop for minor traffic violations as a pretense that police abuse in order to gain additional authority over them. Many view the Mimms searches as a way for police to humiliate targeted individuals while performing rather invasive personal body searches.

Is the Mimms search really about officer safety or humbling mouthy motorists?

This seems to be rather clear in the dash cam video of the Sandra Bland arrest. In the video, Bland finally exits her vehicle after Trooper Encinia threatens to “light you up” with his Taser. Bland exits her car and it is apparent that she is wearing a form fitting dress; a popular style for women known as a “maxi-dress”.  Encinia and a responding female officer conduct a search of Bland outside the view of the dashcam, this despite the fact that Bland’s sheer dress would make any concealed weapon easily visible to a casual observer. This seems less like a perfunctory check for weapons, as the Mimms decision allows for, and instead more like an attempt to humble a still very vocal Sandra Bland. At one point Bland protests that the officers have banged her head, and that she suffers from epilepsy. The officers respond almost in unison by saying, “Good”. It seems as though the police were attempting to convince Bland that she was no longer in control, rather than simply ensuring that she was unarmed.

Regardless of your politics, the prospect that many Americans will gain a safe, affordable and reliable mode of transportation regardless of their ability to drive should be a cause for celebration. The developers and engineers at Google and others at the bleeding-edge of self-driving car technology probably imagined that SDCs would reduce traffic accidents. It’s even possible that they might have even anticipated that SDCs would decrease the overall global consumption of fuel. However, it’s probably safe to say that none of those at the forefront of this technology might have predicted back in 2009 that SDCs might ultimately improve race relations throughout America.
Even under the best conditions self-driving vehicles are still probably 5-7 years away from becoming commercially available in most states. Still, for many people of color who currently live within small municipalities throughout the U.S., the technological revolution of the self-driving car can’t arrive soon enough.

Author bio:
Joel Z. Williams currently makes his living as a freelance writer of legal blogs and as a fiction novelist specializing in military and espionage related thrillers. Mr. Williams resides in Marshfield, Missouri where he is presently at work drafting his next book, Cache Crop: seeds of war. 

Mr. Williams first gained public attention due to his popular You-Tube channel where he offers life advice and DIY pest control strategies to people with limited funds. At the time of print, Joel Z. Williams' YT channel, which also shares his name, has been viewed by nearly 1 million people worldwide.