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You could call Philadelphia Councilman Isaiah Thomas an expert on policing his city’s traffic laws. Since he was a teenager, he says, he has been pulled over more than 20 times. He has been searched, handcuffed and forced to watch his parents’ college graduation present, a late-model Cadillac, torn apart by cops who found absolutely nothing illegal. This, he says, is “a rite of passage” for young Black men.
Perhaps the worst part is that his 8-year-old son, with him during a couple of unwarranted stops, learned sooner than Thomas wanted to teach him that even a prominent community leader will be stopped for no real reason if he’s Black. Once, it was for “pausing too long at a stop sign” to check his GPS for directions.
Now Thomas is in a position to do something about this perversion of justice in Philadelphia, where Black drivers are four times as likely to be stopped as white drivers. He has introduced a measure, supported by a council majority, that would bar police from stopping any motorist for such trivial violations as broken taillights, expired tags or items hanging from a rearview mirror. Police could still stop motorists for violations that put people or property in imminent danger, such as drunken driving or running a red light.
Racial disparities in traffic stops
Philadelphia is one of a handful of jurisdictions across the country – from California to Virginia – moving to change the way traffic laws are enforced. These moves are as welcome as they are belated.
For decades, Black drivers have been subjected to racial disparities in police traffic stops. In 1996, the Supreme Court gave its unanimous blessing to these fishing expeditions, ruling that police could stop cars for minor violations, even if that was a “pretext” to search for illegal drugs. With so many potential violations, from tinted windows to a deodorizer dangling from the rearview mirror, police could find a reason to stop just about anyone. Often it was Black drivers.
It’s no longer possible to ignore the problem, as study after study has revealed how widespread this bias is. One analyzed 95 million traffic stops in about two dozen states by looking at stops before and after sunset on the same stretch of roads. Once the sun set, fewer Black drivers were stopped as the “veil of darkness” hid their race.
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Another study, analyzing search rates after stops, found: “With few exceptions, police agencies across the thirteen states search black drivers at higher rates than they do whites” – in some jurisdictions, at more than six times the rate of whites.
Driving while innocent
Is this nailing criminals? Not many. In a recent 12-month period, Philadelphia police found illegal drugs or guns in less than 1% of traffic stops. And Black drivers were 34% less likely than white drivers to be carrying anything illegal.
Other jurisdictions are taking actions similar to the one Thomas hopes to push through the city council this fall, when members return from recess.
In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where Daunte Wright was fatally shot in April by an officer during a traffic stop, the city council passed a resolution in May to have unarmed civilians enforce nonmoving traffic violations.
In Berkeley, California, where Black drivers are more than six times as likely to be stopped, a series of changes are in the works to bar police from stopping vehicles for violations not related to safety – and ultimately to create a civilian traffic agency with responsibility for most traffic stops. The latter change requires amending state law to allow people other than police to enforce the vehicle code.
Virginia passed a law asserting that several minor traffic infractions, while still illegal, cannot be the primary reason police stop a driver. It went into effect March 1, too short a time to tell how much difference it can make.
All these changes are well worth trying if they can prevent the trauma, humiliation and even the violence against Black motorists that have occurred during some traffic encounters.
No more young Black men should have to consider getting pulled over for an unwarranted traffic stop a rite of passage.
In the wake of a police officer’s conviction for murder in the killing of George Floyd, USA TODAY Opinion is producing a series of editorials examining ways to reform police departments across the USA.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Driving while Black and unwarranted traffic stops cry out for reform