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Why Philadelphia has banned low-level traffic stops

Philadelphia's new Driving Equity Act bars police officers from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations with an aim to closing racial disparities in traffic stops.
Philadelphia's new Driving Equity Act bars police officers from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations with an aim to closing racial disparities in traffic stops.

Philadelphia councilmember Isaiah Thomas remembers when he was pulled over by police while his young son was in the car — for what he says was an unjustifiable reason.

"That is not how I wanted to introduce my son to law enforcement ... and the interaction, I just can't take back," he said.

That memory is part of why he drafted new legislation to ban police officers from pulling drivers over for minor traffic violations. He says the law is rooted in his duty to his constituents in Philadelphia — but also in his personal experiences as a Black man.

"I've been driving in this city all my life, and so it starts with my foundational experiences as it relates to being pulled over for situations that didn't necessarily warrant a pull-over," he said, in an interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang on All Things Considered.

Last Wednesday, Mayor Jim Kenney signed the Driving Equity Act, making Philadelphia the first major city in the U.S. to ban low-level traffic stops. The law, which also requires city police to gather and publicly release data on traffic stops, goes into effect early next year.

A bevy of studies show that Black drivers get pulled over for low-level infractions more often than other drivers in the United States. Civil rights groups often decry such stops as "pretextual" — as cover for racial profiling or fishing for more serious crimes.

The 2016 police killing of Philando Castile, a Black man pulled over in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for a missing taillight, drew national attention to the enforcement of low-level traffic stops.

"We know that there's a history of oppression and institutional racism that has plagued communities of color as it relates to the relationship we've had with law enforcement here in the city of Philadelphia," Thomas said.

The new legislation bans stops for:

  • Driving with a single broken brake light
  • Driving with a single headlight
  • Having a registration plate that's not clearly displayed, fastened, or visible
  • Driving without an inspection or emissions sticker
  • Bumper issues
  • Minor obstructions (like something hanging from a rearview mirror)
  • Driving without vehicle registration within 60 days of the observed infraction
  • While these low-level offenses will no longer lead to interactions between police and drivers, such infractions will still result in a ticket that is either left on the driver's windshield or mailed.

    The Philadelphia Police Department was part of a coalition of stakeholders who helped draft the legislation.

    "We believe this is a fair and balanced approach to addressing racial disparity without compromising public safety," the department said in a statement. The department plans to retrain officers over the next four months before the change is implemented.

    Other state and local governments have introduced similar legislation. The state of Virginia enacted a law in March which includes a ban on stopping and searching drivers for reasons including defective taillights, loud exhaust or the smell of marijuana.

    The city of Minneapolis, near where Philando Castile was stopped and killed, has implemented a policy change to scale back on such police stops.

    Councilmember Thomas hopes that the Driving Equity Act will help communities of color rebuild trust with Philadelphia police.

    "This is hopefully a step in the right direction to be able to rectify some of those ills," he said. "And we're excited about what we are possibly able to do as it relates to not just reducing traffic stops and minimizing negative interactions between communities of color and law enforcement, but just overall changing the narrative as it relates to the relationship between the two."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.