Pittsburgh activists, officials hope legislation will end ‘systemic racism’ in traffic stops

By | October 21, 2023
Pittsburgh activists, officials hope legislation will end ‘systemic racism’ in traffic stops

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday heard input from local activists and the Philadelphia councilman whose legislation spurred Pittsburgh to ban traffic stops for minor, secondary violations.

Pittsburgh in December passed legislation sponsored by Councilman Ricky Burgess to stop police from pulling over drivers for having a burned-out brake light or headlight, having an improperly placed license plate or temporary tag, or having an inspection or emissions sticker that is expired by less than two months.

Council members said the goal was to address the disproportionate number of traffic stops involving people of color. Councilman Anthony Coghill, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting, had cast the lone dissenting vote on the measure. He said he had concerns about what he considered a lack of public process in passing the bill, a problem he aimed to resolve by bringing community activists to the table.

The legislation will not go into effect until 90 days after when it was passed to give Public Safety officials time to train officers on the new rule. That also gives council members time to amend the measure before it goes into effect.

Pittsburgh police “have moved forward with implementing the legislation as it currently stands,” said Public Safety spokeswoman Cara Cruz.

Pittsburgh’s measure comes after Philadelphia passed a similar one last fall, after more than a year of conversations with police, other local officials and the public at large. That legislation, sponsored by Philadelphia City Councilman Isaiah Thomas, is nearly identical to the measure passed in Pittsburgh.

The key difference, Thomas said, is that Philadelphia’s legislation includes a provision for data collection — something he suggested Pittsburgh officials add to their measure. Philadelphia’s law requires police to collect and publish data about why they initiate traffic stops, the race of the individual being pulled over and the result of the stop.

The measure goes into effect in Philadelphia on Feb. 24, as they also provided a window for their more than 6,000 officers to be trained about the measure before implementing it.

Thomas and other community advocates urged Pittsburgh officials to include data collection in their legislation, as it can help them determine whether the measure is impacting public safety and whether racial profiling is occurring in other forms of traffic stops.

Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, called for the legislation to include data collection and to expand the list of violations that cannot trigger a traffic stop to include all secondary violations.

Existing data on traffic stops seems to show that stopping motorists for minor, secondary violations such as a burned-out tail light or expired emissions sticker won’t negatively impact public safety efforts, said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Traffic stops for minor violations disproportionately impact Black drivers, he said. Once traffic stops are initiated, Black drivers are more likely to be questioned at length and to be searched or have their car searched, he said.

“This practice causes real damage,” he said. “It does not find lots of guns or drugs. What you get instead is you get the occasional catastrophe. You cannot underestimate the damage this does to trust in police.”

Harris said there is no data suggesting that eliminating such traffic stops will translate to an increase in crime.

Thomas, the Philadelphia councilman, cited statistics showing that city police found weapons or contraband in less than 1% of traffic stops.

“It actually makes crime worse, because people are less likely to cooperate with law enforcement,” he said.

Eliminating those negative encounters with police can bolster police-community relations and make Black residents feel safer, he said.

Thomas, who is Black, said he has personally been pulled over more than 20 times while driving. That’s why he feels it’s important to consider the lived experiences of Black people who are left feeling “humiliated” or scared after being pulled over for something minor.

“Even if you do everything right, things can still go south,” he said. “Going south doesn’t always mean someone losing their life. It’s the feeling of being so vulnerable and so out of control of the current situation when you’ve done everything right. That feeling stays with you forever.”

Autumn Redcross of the Abolitionist Law Center said she supports City Council’s efforts to ban traffic stops for minor violations because of experiences she’s seen firsthand. She cited an example of her son being pulled over for a burned-out brake light. Six officers responded, though he’d done nothing wrong.

“It’s a feeling you just can’t describe about being out of control and being unable to protect your children, because you don’t know how it might escalate,” she said, adding that she had to teach her kids about the appropriate ways to stay safe during a traffic stop to keep the situation from escalating to violence.

She urged City Council to also pass legislation restricting stop-and-frisk practices, and advocated for taking the measure further to ban stop-and-frisk altogether.

That measure also has earned the support of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who said he has seen the data about traffic stops and has experienced traffic stops for minor infractions firsthand.

“Traffic stops don’t help us to combat crime,” he said. “Instead, they undermine police-community relations and make the city less safe and less livable, particularly for our Black and Brown residents. The disparity of traffic stops should alarm everyone and this is why we have to come up with a solution that makes this city safer for all of us.”

Gainey said the issue is a priority for his transition committee on public safety, which will address the matter in a forthcoming report that will be shared publicly.

Though local activists and members of council seemed hopeful that the measure would help address systemic racism in traffic stops, they acknowledged that it is only part of addressing a larger problem.

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith acknowledged that the measure doesn’t apply to city residents once they’re driving in nearby municipalities outside of city limits.

Even within the city, the measure impacts only Pittsburgh police — not university police at schools within the city, or county or state police.

Kier Bradford-Gray, Philadelphia’s former chief public defender, said she would like to see state police adopt the same policies, following in the footsteps of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Thomas noted that similar legislation also is being considered in the state legislature.

Julia Felton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia at 724-226-7724, [email protected] or via Twitter .