If you’re aware of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, you’ll likely be familiar with the significance of traffic stops. Research shows that black drivers in the States are much more likely to be pulled over by police, despite being statistically less likely than white drivers to be found with guns or drugs in their cars. Black Americans are also disproportionately more likely to be shot dead by police after being stopped while driving.
Given the statistics, it wasn’t particularly surprising for an African American woman to be pulled over by police in Florida. What was surprising – for the police officers – was that that woman turned out to be the state attorney.
Aramis Ayala, the first and only African American to ever be elected to the position, was stopped while driving home from teaching a university class on 19 June. A police bodycam video of the awkward interaction was published online by the Orlando Police Department this week.
In the video, Ayala can be seen taking out her driver’s licence as one of the policemen approaches her car. When he asks what agency she works for, she responds calmly: “I’m the state attorney.”
US state attorneys are lawyers appointed to represent the state in legal proceedings, and often act as chief counsel for police and law enforcement agencies.
The police officer immediately starts explaining why Ayala was stopped, saying that he ran her license plate through a computer system and received no result.
“Your tag didn’t come back,” he says. “Never seen that before.”
When the state attorney asks why her license plate was checked, he tells her that police run “tags” all the time. “That’s how we figure out if cars are stolen and that sort of thing,” he says, adding that the tinted windows in Ayala’s car were another reason for the stop.
Once the officer finishes talking, Ayala smiles slightly before asking for the pair’s identity details, which they provide.
Orlando Police Department said that the running of license plate tags was “done routinely on patrol”.
“The officers stated the tag did not come back as registered to any vehicle. As you can see in the video, the window tint was dark, and officers would not have been able to tell who, or how many people, were in the vehicle,” a statement said.
Florida police have previously come under scrutiny for alleged racial profiling on roadways. A 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that black motorists were stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations nearly twice as often as white drivers.
In a statement, Ayala acknowledged that “the traffic stop appears to be consistent with Florida law”.
“To be clear, I violated no laws,” she said. “The license plate, while confidential, was and remains properly registered.
“The tint was in no way a violation of Florida law.”
Ayala added that she hoped the incident would facilitate “an open dialogue with the Chief of Orlando Police Department” about how to achieve “a constructive and mutually respectful relationship between law enforcement and the community”.
Images: youtube.com, Rex Features