Today, everyone understands the concept of "driving while black," or the fear that African Americans are more likely to get pulled over for minor traffic and vehicle violations, especially when they are driving in areas that are wealthy and heavily white or places that are predominantly poor and that depend on traffic fines for revenue. While black and white drivers are pulled over at similar rates for clear traffic violations, black are five times more likely to be pulled over and searched in "investigatory stops."
Which puts a fine irony on the "first known traffic stop of any note" in the United States. The year was 1872, the vehicle was a horse-drawn carriage, the city was Washington, D.C., and the offenders was President Ulysses S. Grant. Even more amazingly, the officer was William West, an African American. From the Washington Star's account, as quoted in The New York Observer:
"I cautioned you yesterday, Mr. President," answered the policeman, "about fast driving, and you said, sir, that it would not occur again."
"Did I?" mused Grant, still with a quizzical smile on his features. "Well, I suppose I forgot it, and that I might have been going a little bit too fast this evening: but hang it officer, these animals of mine are thoroughbreds, and there is no holding them."
"I am very sorry, Mr. President to have to do it, for you are the chief of the nation, and I am but a policeman. But duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest," West replied.
"All right," cried Grant, "where do you wish me to go with you?"
Grant ended up forking over a $20 fine. The Observer story, written by Josh Keefe, goes on to explore how the automobile, that symbol of freedom and autonomy, has also become a major tool of surveillance and reprimand. The car, after all, gave rise to the traffic stop, the most common way in which people interact with cops:
The traffic stop, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is "the most common reason for contact with the police." The agency estimated that in 2011, "42 percent of face-to-face contacts that U.S. residents had with police" were traffic stops. The side-of-the-road summit has a long history as a flash point in battles over the use of police power. Rodney King's beating occurred after a traffic stop. The Watts riots of 1968 erupted after a confrontation at a traffic stop. So did the 1967 Newark riots.
"Cars are completely transformative," said Sarah Seo, an associate professor at Iowa Law School and author of a recent paper on automobiles and policing in the Yale Law Journal. "The massive growth of police departments really happens after the mass production of automobiles," she continued….
And of course, the rise of the traffic stop also gave rise to the traffic ticket.
With the traffic ticket, every traffic stop turned into a money-making opportunity.
"Every little town with a main road running through it loved [the automobile], because they thought 'oh we can increase our revenue.'" explained Cotten Seiler, author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. Policing the roads was "always about more than public safety." Seiler said. "It was about the exercise of the various types of power: local power, racial power and also about making money."
It's a fascinating little story, well-written and full of odd historical tidbits such as the opening anecdote about Grant and Officer West. Given the large role traffic stops (and their cousin, automated traffic tickets via red-light cameras) have played in increasing tensions between minorities and police over the past few years, it's well worth a read.
Related video about the ultimate traffic-stop nightmare: "Do you have it up your ass?: Drug warriors in New Mexico go too far."