You could call Philadelphia City Councilor Isaiah Thomas, an expert in traffic enforcement in his city. Since he was a teenager, he says, he has been arrested more than 20 times. He was searched, handcuffed and forced to look at his parents’ college graduation gift, a latest generation Cadillac torn apart by cops who found 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 on a few wrongful shutdowns, learned earlier that Thomas didn’t want to teach him that even a prominent community leader will be arrested for no real reason if he’s black. Once it was for “stopping 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 more likely to be arrested than white drivers. He introduced a measure, supported by a majority of the council, that would ban police from stopping any motorist for such trivial offenses as broken tail lights, expired labels or items hanging from a rearview mirror. Police could still stop motorists for offenses that put people or property in imminent danger, such as driving while intoxicated or passing a red light.
Racial disparities in roadside checks
Philadelphia is one of the few jurisdictions across the country – from California to Virginia – to change the way traffic laws are enforced. These movements are as welcome as they are late.
For decades, black drivers have been subjected to racial disparities during police stops. In 1996, the Supreme Court gave its unanimous blessing to these fishing expeditions, ruling that the police could stop cars for minor offenses, even if it was a “pretext” to search for illegal drugs. With so many potential offenses, from tinted windows to deodorant hanging from the rearview mirror, police could find a reason to arrest just about anyone. They were often black drivers.
It is no longer possible to ignore the problem, because study after study has revealed how widespread this bias is. One of them analyzed 95 million traffic stops in about two dozen states by examining the stops before and after sunset on the same stretch of road. Once the sun went down, fewer black pilots were stopped because the “veil of darkness” obscured their race.
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Another study, analyzing search rates after stops, found, “With few exceptions, police departments in all thirteen states search black drivers at higher rates than whites” – in some jurisdictions, more than six times the rate of whites.
Does it nail criminals? Not a lot. 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 carry something illegal.
Other jurisdictions are taking action similar to the one Thomas hopes to get city council passed this fall, when members return from recess.
In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where Daunte Wright was shot dead in April by an officer during a traffic stop, city council passed a resolution in May for unarmed civilians to enforce traffic violations.
In Berkeley, Calif., Where black drivers are more than six times more likely to be stopped, a series of changes are underway to prevent police from stopping vehicles for non-safety related offenses – and ultimately to create a responsible civilian traffic agency. for most traffic stops. This latest change requires changing state law to allow people other than the police to enforce vehicle code.
Virginia has passed a law saying that several minor traffic violations, while still illegal, cannot be the primary reason police stop a driver. It went into effect on March 1, too little time to say how much of a difference it can make.
All of these changes are worth trying if they can prevent the trauma, humiliation, and even violence against black motorists that has occurred during certain traffic problems.
No young black man should ever consider being arrested for an unjustified traffic stop as a rite of passage.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Driving While Blacks and Wrongful Traffic Stops Call for Reform