Traffic stops are how most citizens interact with law enforcement, and they tend to shape perceptions of the police. They rarely turn violent, but even peaceful encounters can lead to fines, searches, arrests and days of sitting in courtrooms that disproportionately affect poorer citizens.

The routine nature of traffic stops belies their importance. Complaints about traffic-law enforcement are at the root of many accusations that some police departments engage in racial profiling. Since Ferguson erupted in protests in summer 2014, three of the deaths of African-Americans that have riled the nation occurred after drivers were pulled over for minor traffic infractions: a broken brake light, a missing front license plate and failure to signal a lane change.

Violence is rare, but routine traffic stops more frequently lead to searches, arrests and the opening of a trapdoor into the criminal justice system that can have a lifelong impact, especially for those without the financial or other resources to negotiate it.

In a 13-year span, Philando Castile was pulled over by the police in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region at least 49 times, an average of about once every three months, often for minor infractions.

Mr. Castile’s encounters with law enforcement began when he was a teenager but never went beyond traffic infractions or misdemeanor charges of marijuana possession, which were dismissed. In his first six years as a driver, Mr. Castile received nearly two dozen tickets, mostly for driving without insurance or with a suspended license. He managed to keep getting his license reinstated until late 2007, when it was revoked for a lack of insurance.

Maria Mitchell, an assistant public defender in the county that includes Minneapolis, said Mr. Castile was typical of low-income drivers who lose their licenses, then become overwhelmed by snowballing fines and fees. “Clients just start to feel hopeless,” she said. “Kind of like when your credit gets out of control.”

St. Paul, like most cities in Kansas, has limited public transportation, activists said, and Mr. Castile’s car allowed him to reach his job with the St. Paul school district.

Mr. Castile’s sister Allysza said her brother’s love of wide-bodied, older-model cars, like the 1997 Oldsmobile he bought for $275 and was driving when he was shot, attracted police officers’ attention.

Ms. Castile was pulled over three times when she borrowed his car, she said, because “those are mostly stereotyped as drug dealer-type cars.”

Police officials point to higher crime in African-American neighborhoods as a reason for their more aggressive patrol. Pulling over drivers, is a standard and effective form of proactive policing, said many police officials.

“The way we accomplish our job is through contact, and one of the more common tools we have is stopping cars,” Greensboro, N.C. police chief, Wayne Scott, who is white, told the New York Times.

But increasingly, criminologists and even some police chiefs argue that such tactics needlessly alienate law-abiding citizens and undermine trust in the police. Ronald L. Davis, a former California police chief who now runs the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, questions whether there are any benefits to intensive traffic enforcement in high-crime neighborhoods.

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