“Traffic Stop,” an upsetting yet faintly hopeful documentary directed by Kate Davis and produced by David Heilbroner (airing Monday on HBO), is only 31 minutes long, zooming in with intense focus on the sort of encounter that is so common you can probably fill in the details yourself: A white Austin police officer briefly pursues a speeding vehicle being driven by a young African American teacher on a June day in 2015.
Her car zips into a Wendy’s parking lot. When Breaion King gets out and says she is going inside the restaurant, the officer, Bryan Richter, orders her to sit back inside the car. She complies, but argues that he can’t he pull her over if she’s already stopped. He tells her he most certainly can.
The conversation instantly sours. “Would you please hurry up?” she curtly asks him and something in the officer snaps — fear, anger, prejudice, impatience? Richter yanks King out of the car and tosses her to the ground like a rag doll. She screams for help and resists his attempts to handcuff her as they tussle.
A video camera on Richter’s dashboard captured the entire incident (which briefly went viral online), including a moment when King rises to her knees and is again thrown to the ground. An interior camera is still rolling when a restrained King is put in the back seat moments later. She yells and cries as more officers arrive. “She’s got some fight in her,” Richter tells another officer.
What has happened here? Why? How do these encounters so frequently go wrong?
Perhaps at a feature length of 90 minutes or more, Davis and Heilbroner would pursue this in a more clinical, methodically earnest (and perhaps more predictable) style. Instead they have delivered something far more memorable, a story that is poetically edited into an intimate slice of the biggest civil rights issue of our day, which is about what our society has become and how we treat one another.
With the original footage as its anchor, “Traffic Stop” (which is up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject) follows King, an energetic elementary-school math teacher, through some of her daily routines. She also reflects on her life up to the moment she pulled into that parking lot, including the encoded warnings her late mother imparted to her as a child.
“My mom would tell me, ‘You’re my beautiful chocolate baby,’ ” King recalls, mulling over the word chocolate in hindsight, and realizing her mother was “letting me know that in this world, people don’t see your skin as beautiful.”
King, who tells Richter that she has never been arrested before, is transferred to another officer’s car, where a back-seat camera continues to record her trip to the county jail. Gathering her resolve (and still handcuffed), she pokes her head toward the opening in the partition: “Do you still believe there is racism out there?” King asks.
Yes, Officer Patrick Spradlin replies. “Let me ask you this, though,” he asks. “Do you believe it goes both ways?”
“I believe it does. [But] I’m not gonna lie,” King says. “I believe Caucasians have supremacy over black people. Let’s be honest. They have more rights.”
Spradlin, who at first seems game for a discussion, instead turns to lecture, telling King that black people are prone to “violent tendencies.”
“And I want you to think about that,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when you hear about stuff like that, it is the black community that’s being violent. That’s why a lot of white people are afraid, and I don’t blame them.”
There’s a futility to “Traffic Stop” that gnaws at the viewer’s conscience. Could King have handled herself differently? Perhaps. Could Richter? Certainly. What should have been a routine encounter has instead left a deep emotional wound. King says that when she used to Google her name, there would be pictures of her in college, on stage in an opera or competing in a Miss Huston-Tillotson University contest.
“But now you get mug shots. And it’s never going to go away. . . . Now I have to search long and hard to find something positive about [me], when prior to this, that was all I was,” she says.
King has an ongoing lawsuit against the city, while Richter received a reprimand for the incident. Last month, according to the Austin American-Statesman, Richter was fired for using excessive force during a July 2017 arrest. And a local TV station reported that Richter had charged more people with resisting arrest than any Austin police officer in the past decade.
“Everything in me is fighting to get over it,” King says. “Are officers really out here for my good? Are they really here to protect me? It makes you question the love you have for yourself. It makes you question the love that you have for you.”
Traffic Stop (31 minutes) airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO. Available now on HBO’s streaming and on-demand services.