Tahjj Taylor is young, African American and buoyed about the future he’s forging as a documentary filmmaker. Yet his day-to-day outlook is weighted by past experiences with police.
Taylor, 27, of Denver, Colorado doesn’t have a record of major crimes. But he does have a history of traffic stops by police—some 50 between 2007 (when he was 18 and a newly licensed driver) and 2010.
“It was just always something petty. I remember this one time, there was a stop sign and I know I stopped,” Taylor said. But, he added, about a half mile beyond the sign, a Denver police officer pulled him over for failing to obey a stop sign.
Taylor’s experiences have had a negative impact on his health, which is not unusual. Increasingly, researchers are finding that the psychological effects of being subjected to chronic inequitable treatment can be significant and long-lasting. Also becoming clearer is that, despite changing policies, unequal treatment is sometimes engrained in law enforcement practices or culture.
Stops in which police officers use minor traffic violations as excuses or pretext to pull over motorists to look for signs of drugs or other criminal activity—regardless of whether there’s evidence of a crime—are known as pretextual traffic stops, and they occur around the country. Despite longstanding controversy over the practice, it was upheld in 1996 by the Supreme Court in Whren v. United States.
Taylor was not the criminal target that pretextual traffic stops were designed to nab, and police never searched or asked to search his car during those stops.
Denver Police Department (DPD) Deputy Chief Matt Murray acknowledged that pretextual traffic stops were once part of police practice in the city, but said the practice changed in 2006, when the department enacted a policy that bans racial profiling.
From the numerous times Taylor was stopped, he received eight tickets—all for minor traffic violations—and was always allowed to drive away. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave those traffic stops unscathed. He struggles with anxiety and is hypervigilant about possible police encounters to this day.
“(I know) that I can get stopped at any moment…It’s definitely a thought when I wake up. ‘Am I going to get stopped today? I need to be prepared for it to happen,’” Taylor said. He checks to make sure his license, car insurance and title are in order every time he drives, in case he’s pulled over by police.
“It’s a constant thought. I feel like some cops might run in my house right now for doing this interview. You just don’t know the boundaries of what they can and can’t do.”
Such emotional stress is not unusual, according to Monnica Williams, PhD, associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut and director of the Culture and Mental Health Disparities Lab. Williams is one of a handful of psychologists in the country studying the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and racism. That connection is known as race-based traumatic stress, or racial trauma.
“There’s a whole range of treatment people might get from the police,” Williams said. “On one end, there’s micro-aggression, and on the other end, there is really traumatizing violence. It’s really sort of the combination of these things that result in traumatization.”
Increasingly, studies indicate that people who suffer racism and discrimination can develop a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and even PTSD.
“We’re actually kind of socialized not to see racism and not to talk about it,” Williams said. “So, a white person that doesn’t experience racism really doesn’t know what you’re talking about because they haven’t seen it. It hasn’t happened to them unless they have a significant other or a family member of a stigmatized group, it’s really not on their radar.”
Taylor has not been diagnosed with PTSD or RBTSI, but he was diagnosed with anxiety after he began driving. For years, he didn’t realize that a major cause of his anxiety was his interactions with police.
“When you’re young, you don’t understand what anxiety is. … I had no idea that I would be pulled over like that as soon as I started driving,” Taylor said. “And because of that, because I had no reference point, I thought being pulled over by cops was normal.”
Taylor’s perspective, though, changed once he entered college and broadened his social circle. That’s when he realized that when his white acquaintances drove, they usually didn’t have any encounters with police, even when they broke the law.
In Colorado, racial profiling in policing is illegal. But the statewide CLEAR Report by the Colorado Department of Public Safety released last December found, in part, that: Blacks (men and women) are more likely to be arrested or issued summonses; and Once arrested, blacks were more likely than other racial or ethnic groups to receive jail time.
In Denver, activists in communities comprised primarily of people of color have maintained that police continue to racially profile blacks and Latinos. (A recent Office of the Independent Monitor report found that black and brown people are significantly more likely to be shot by police.) They have long said the problem needs a lot more attention and study.
Lisa Calderón, co-chair of the Denver chapter of the Colorado Latino Forum (CLF), and Taylor’s mother, said although activist groups like CLF had long pushed for data collection to resume, Denver police resisted until last summer.
After years of criticism from activist groups and a recommendation by Denver City Auditor Timothy O’Brien, Denver police last summer agreed to resume collecting demographic data on traffic and pedestrian stops, which would offer some insight into police interactions with people of color. DPD Chief Robert White said during an August 2016 press conference that the information collected will likely include the age, race and gender of the people stopped.
“Not only do we want to see when people are getting stopped and why they’re getting stopped; we want to see the outcome of the stops. That’s really important,” White said at the time.
A committee made up of DPD officers and community members, including Murray and Calderón, meets weekly to determine what demographic data collection for traffic and pedestrian stops in Denver should look like this time around. The group has selected the Center for Policing Equity to help work through the process and is finalizing a contract with the organization. Once the committee has drafted a plan, members will present it to the community and police union for input.
As Colorado police departments work to find the best way to serve their communities, Taylor is using creative outlets to cope with anxiety. He has long since moved out of Denver’s Cole neighborhood, where he said all of the traffic stops occurred. He writes songs, creates art pieces, records and edits short films, and dabbles in photography.
But, he thinks about his past police experiences regularly and, when he’s driving, makes it a point to know where police are.
“If I feel like I am unjustly approached, I am prepared for the process that follows,” Taylor said. “But luckily, I live in a place where the police culture is changing.”
Nowadays, he said, “I actually enjoy getting an opportunity to speak to officers in passing,” such as during his job as a restaurant server, or in passing while walking around his college campus.
“Holding onto outdated grudges isn’t productive. We should be looking for common ground to build on.”
Lorna Grisby is a Journalist in Fairfield County, CT. Reproduced with permission of The Colorado Trust (www.coloradotrust.org).