This article, prepared for the special issue on investigations, presents an original empirical analysis of the role of the motor vehicle in shaping how officers describe experiencing violence and perceiving danger during vehicle stops. Tens of millions of traffic stops occur every year, making vehicle stops the most common interaction that civilians have with law enforcement. Although traffic stops are commonly described as dangerous settings for police officers, little is known about how the motor vehicle itself shapes officer descriptions, perceptions, and experiences of danger and harm during these stops.
The presented findings make at least four key contributions to scholarship and policing law and policy. First, the findings inform unfolding criminal law reforms surrounding the policing and criminalization of traffic offenses, which are major sources of racial disparity in, and net-widening of, the criminal justice system today. Second, the findings prompt questions about whether and when legal actors, and especially actors that regulate the police, should defer to officer danger narratives involving motor vehicles. Third, the findings prompt novel questions about technology and the law, and more specifically, the ability of new motor vehicle technologies to help diffuse officer perceptions of danger that stem from motor vehicles. Fourth and finally, the findings illustrate a need to pay greater attention to the motor vehicle as a source of officer danger and harm in official policing data in order to accurately measure the risks and costs of policing during vehicle stops.