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Nation & World

Cities are taking steps to restrict the policing of minor traffic stops

Los Angeles is overhauling its traffic policing, aiming to stop pulling over cars — frequently with Black drivers — for trivial infractions like broken taillights or expired tags as a pretext to search for drugs or guns.

“We want to fish with a hook, not a net,” Police Chief Michel Moore said.

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Los Angeles last month became the biggest city to restrict the policing of minor violations. In Philadelphia, a ban on such stops has just taken effect. Pittsburgh; Seattle; Berkeley, California; Lansing, Michigan; Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; and the state of Virginia have all taken similar steps. Elsewhere across the country, a half-dozen prosecutors have said they will not bring charges based on evidence collected at these stops.

Officials pushing the new rules cite data showing that minor stops not only disproportionately snare Black drivers but also do little to combat serious crime or improve public safety, and some escalate into avoidable violence, even killing officers or drivers.

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The latest example is the death in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of Patrick Lyoya, an unarmed 26-year-old Black man who was pulled over for a mismatched license plate and, after a brief struggle, was apparently shot in the head from behind, according to videos released Wednesday. An hour away in Lansing, new rules seek to prevent such deadly encounters.

“There is a trust factor,” Mayor Andy Schor of Lansing said last month, “that if you get pulled over — whether it’s a moving violation, or pretextual, or whatever — you’re not going to end up dead.”

Police chiefs and criminologists say the rule changes amount to the first major reconsideration of traffic policing since the early 1980s, when rising crime rates, a shift toward more proactive policing and the advent of squad car computers for checking driver records helped make pretextual stops a cornerstone of enforcement.

“Never before have government officials, policymakers or prosecutors tried to limit how police officers use traffic stops in their investigatory role — in fact, historically, making these stops was encouraged,” said Sarah A. Seo, a law professor at Columbia University who studies traffic stops. “These new policies may be turning the tide.”

A New York Times investigation last fall revealed that in the previous five years, police officers pulling over cars had killed more than 400 motorists who were neither wielding a gun or knife nor under pursuit for a violent crime — a rate of more than one a week. Police culture and court precedents significantly overstated the danger to officers, encouraging aggression in the name of self-defense and impunity from prosecutors and juries, the investigation found.

Legislation limiting stops in Pittsburgh quoted the Times’ reporting, and advocates across the country have cited it to argue for the changes. The killings at traffic stops are among a total of about 1,000 a year by American police, data shows.

Some police unions and officers are fighting the new rules, arguing that pulling over cars to search them is an essential weapon against serious crime.

In Philadelphia, the police union has sued to block the ordinance that banned certain stops, saying it violates state laws. In Virginia, a coalition of police associations, local chiefs and Republican officials, including the attorney general, is campaigning to get rid of a ban on minor stops that Democrats passed before losing full control of the statehouse last November.

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In Los Angeles, the police union is running online advertisements warning that discouraging stops could allow guns and killers to remain on the roads.

Joe Massie, a veteran motorcycle officer and an official of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said anxiety about running afoul of the new rules “is going to disincentivize officers to make stops.” With homicide rates rising in Los Angeles and other cities, he added, “leaving even a single gun on the streets is too many.”

Defenders of pretextual stops also note that the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the tactic a quarter-century ago.

At a time when an uptick in crime has stalled many criminal justice reform efforts, including at the federal level, the rethinking of traffic policing is striking. It is coming “at the very moment that the pendulum feels like it’s moving back toward concern about increases in street crime,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum.

Some officials changing policies, though, say they have seen how even minor traffic stops can turn deadly.

A year ago this week, officers in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, pulled over Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, for driving with expired tags and a dangling air freshener. Then they discovered he had an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. One of the officers, Kim Potter, drew her gun instead of her Taser and fatally shot him. (She was convicted of manslaughter in February and sentenced to two years in prison.)

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“It shouldn’t have to take the life of a beautiful young Black man to be able to make changes that we all know need to be made,” said Mayor Mike Elliott of Brooklyn Center, adding that officials were hammering out a new policy limiting low-level stops.

John Choi, the prosecutor in nearby Ramsey County, Minnesota, pointed to the 2016 killing of another Black driver, Philando Castile.

Pulled over on the pretext of a broken brake light, Castile disclosed that he was carrying a handgun and then reached for his ID. The officer shot him. When Choi brought manslaughter charges, the policeman testified that he had feared for his life and a jury acquitted him.

Choi recalled thinking, “Do I want to look myself in the mirror and say I am incentivizing these police practices?” He announced last fall that he would no longer prosecute criminal charges on evidence collected at stops for minor infractions.

Isaiah Thomas, a Black city councilman who introduced the Philadelphia ordinance, said he experienced the racial disparities in traffic policing when his mother bought him a 5-year-old Cadillac DTS as a college graduation gift in 2007.

A Cadillac with a Black man behind the wheel was a magnet for the Philadelphia police, he said. Now 37, he is still pulled over at least once a year in his aging Ford SUV, he said — sometimes twice in the same month — and never for any reason more serious than passing on the right, a faulty license plate or an expired registration.

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“Getting pulled over consistently like that is just a rite of passage for people of color,” Thomas said.

The Rev. Ricky Burgess, the council member who sponsored Pittsburgh’s legislation, said the risk of escalation created by disproportionately stopping Black drivers — exacerbated by preexisting tensions between police and Black residents — was a greater threat to public safety than the traffic violations.

“For a Black person, the stop itself becomes the dangerous moment,” he said.

Others noted that pulling over cars results in more officer fatalities than any other activity initiated by the police, even if the risk is low at any given stop. Such stops “are a danger to law enforcement” as well as ineffective and racially discriminatory, Sarah George, the prosecutor for Chittenden County, Vermont, wrote in a statement this year explaining why she would “presumptively” decline to bring charges arising from minor pullovers.

Although unions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles oppose limiting the stops, police chiefs in those cities and elsewhere have embraced the idea. In 2013, Harold Medlock, the now-retired police chief of Fayetteville, North Carolina, told his officers to quit stopping cars for expired registrations or equipment violations, to focus on speeding, reckless driving and other more dangerous infractions.

In 2016, the year he retired, the Fayetteville police made more than 50% more stops than in the year before he took over — and mainly for those hazardous infractions. But although police were stopping more cars, they searched far fewer Black drivers or passengers — one-third of the number they had searched in 2012, according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

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The same data showed that traffic fatalities, police use of force and citizen complaints about police all declined during that time — while predictions of an explosion in gun and drug crimes never came to pass.

“Everything good that could happen, did happen,” recalled Medlock.

In Seattle, Chief Adrian Z. Diaz said the demands for more equitable policing after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 had coincided with staffing challenges from the pandemic. Dangerous driving surged on empty streets while the number of officers available for duty fell sharply. In response, the city this year began using cameras to police red-light violations and other infractions at some intersections, and Diaz ordered officers to quit stopping cars for a list of low-level traffic infractions that he deemed a waste of their time.

State agencies could bill by mail for an expired registration. Police could quit stopping bicyclists for helmet violations because that no longer made sense in the era of helmetless bike sharing, and pulling over cars just for air fresheners, cracked windows or missing front license plates had never made sense, he said. A program to pass out repair coupons for equipment violations is also in the works.

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“We would prefer to get back to the basics of, you know, fighting crime,” Diaz added.

In Los Angeles, the catalyst for change was a 2020 report from the police department’s inspector general showing that — reflecting national patterns — officers disproportionately stopped Black and Hispanic drivers, often for minor or technical violations. That was especially true for officers in gang units or assigned to high-crime areas. Yet even in those cases the minor stops almost never yielded arrests for serious crimes like drug or gun possession.

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The police chief wanted his officers to continue to conduct certain pretextual stops, like pulling over drivers making illegal turns and checking for intoxication, he said.

So the department now requires that officers record themselves on their body-worn cameras stating the underlying reasons for a minor stop, a policy Moore said was intended to reduce arbitrary pullovers and build trust in police.

An officer might explain to a driver, for example, that the car not only is missing a license plate, but also matches the description of a vehicle linked to a more serious crime.

“If the officer doesn’t have something more than ‘no front plate’ and he’s simply on a fishing expedition,” Moore said, “we don’t want to do that.”

c.2022 The New York Times Company


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