Philadelphia became the first major city to ban police traffic stops of low-level motor vehicle offenses, a tactic which critics claim disproportionately affects black people.
The Philadelphia City Council passed two Driving Equity bills on Thursday that Mayor James Kenney is is expected to sign into law this week.
The law creates an open searchable database recording traffic stops and prohibits police officers from stopping drivers for minor offenses by reclassifying several offenses as secondary violations.
Secondary violations citations are issued to drivers by mail, eliminating the need for a low-level traffic stop, which is a tactic commonly used as a pretext to stop and search drivers.
‘The way black men are often searched, specifically here in the City of Philadelphia, when pulled over by law enforcement, puts you in a position where you’re very, very uncomfortable often,’ said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who drafted the Driving Equality bills.
City councilman Isaiah Thomas authored the two bills which he introduced on June 24
The Philadelphia City Council passed two Driving Equity Bills which now await Mayor James Kenney’s signature, which is expected to come within the next few days
Head of the Philadelphia Public Defenders’ Police Accountability Unit Michael Mellon worked with Thomas to draft the bill analyzing police and city data
In Philadelphia, people of color are 3.4 times as likely to be pulled over as white people, according to WPVI Philadelphia, which analyzed city police and US Census data.
The bill states the searchable database must be developed within a year of the law being enacted. It will include driver and officer information, demographic and geographic information, and the reason for each stop.
Thomas drafted the bills to address the racial inequities and profiling that he has seen and experienced in his city and noted that ‘Philadelphia is leading the nation when it comes to this particular issue.’
Thomas, who is black, says that he has been pulled over more times than he count.
‘Being pulled over by law enforcement is a rite of passage for black men. It’s something we all know that we’re gonna have to go through,’ he said to WPVI.
The city councilmember added that: ‘The way black men are often searched, specifically here in the City of Philadelphia, when pulled over by law enforcement, puts you in a position where you’re very, very uncomfortable often.’
He recounted a time when an officer told him he’d been pulled over for a broken taillight but was told by a mechanic that nothing what wrong with it when he took it to the mechanic the next day.
A broken taillight is the number one reason given for minor traffic stops, according to Michael Mellon, head of the Philadelphia Public Defenders’ Police Accountability Unit.
But while Thomas has lost count of how many times he’s been pulled over, Mellon, who is white, has never been stopped by police- despite the fact that he frequently drives through heavily policed areas for his job.
‘The only real answer we have here is that there’s a racial bias in policing itself,’ Mellon said.
People of color are 3.4 times as likely to be pulled over as white people in Philadelphia
Native American Philadelphians are the most likely minority group to be stopped
94 per cent of all traffic stops in Philadelphia this year happened to people of color
Latino drivers are 3.1 times more likely than white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop in Philadelphia
Although Philadelphia Police have searched fewer of the vehicles they’ve stopped this year compared to recent years, data shows the racial disparities of these stops have widened
The Supreme Court has ruled that traffic stops for minor violations are legal
The data analyzed by WPVI shows that black people have made up 76.7 per cent of traffic stops so far this year. That equates to more than double their portion of the city population.
WPVI found that 94 percent of all Philadelphia traffic stops this year were of driver who were people of color.
Black Philadelphians have a 5.2 times higher chance as white Philadelphians to be pulled over while Native American Philadelphians were 5.7 times as likely as white Philadelphians to be stopped. Latino Philadelphians were recorded to be 1.6 times as likely as white Philadelphians to be pulled over.
Mellon cited the fact that these pretextual stops are difficult to challenge in court because they were ruled legal by the Supreme Court. But the stops are clearly impacting people of color at alarming rates.
‘The U.S. Supreme Court has given police officers the green light to racially profile people,’ he said.
Officers often take advantage of these unnecessary stops to search people for guns and drugs, critics charged. Black Philadelphians were 2.4 times as likely as white Philadelphians to have their vehicles searched by police while Latino Philadelphians were 3.1 times as likely as white Philadelphians to be searched.
While Philadelphia Police have not searched as many vehicles that they’ve stopped this year compared to recent years, data shows the racial disparities of these stops have widened.
Thomas and Mellon noted that while people of color are more often stopped and searched, searches of white drivers are more likely to return illegal goods – likely due to the more evidence cited when pulling over white drivers.
Daunte Wright, 20, was fatally shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota for driving with an expired license and having something hanging from his rearview mirror
Philando Castile, 32, was shot and killed in his car after being pulled over for a broken taillight with his girlfriend and and 4-year-old daughter riding with him in Minnesota
Bland, 28, was found hanging in her cell in a Texas jail in July 2015 three days after her controversial arrest. Her death was ruled a suicide
The city councilmember and the head of the Philadelphia Public Defenders’ Police Accountability Unit worked on the Driving Equity bills together to guarantee that they will not create an increase a crime.
Mellon analyzed Philadelphia Motor Vehicle Code stops and gun violence data which showed no evidence minor traffic stops reduce shootings or traffic fatalities.
But Thomas mentioned that: ‘We see far too often that people of color are involved in these traffic stops with law enforcement, often unarmed, that lead to some type of situation.’
Philadelphia’s Driving Equity bills could lead to as many as 300,000 fewer police encounters each year, the Defender Association told The Inquirer.
The Philadelphia Police Department will be given 120 days for training and education before its implementation.
The new law comes as cases of motorists being shot ‘while driving black’ have made headlines.
On April 11, a 20-year-old biracial man was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Daunte Wright was pulled over for driving with expired plates and having an item hanging from the rearview window.
Once he was stopped, officers discovered that a ‘gross misdemeanor warrant’ had been issued for his arrest related to a 2019 aggravated robbery charge. Officer Kimberly Potter claims that she grabbed her gun mistaking it for her taser and accidentally killed Wright during the traffic stop when Wright tried get back into his car.
In 2016, Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, was fatally shot in his car next to his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter after he was pulled over for a broken taillight, also in Minnesota.
Video of his death went viral when his girlfriend livestreamed the deadly interaction on Facebook.
A year before Castile’s death, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, was found hanged in a Texas jail cell three days after being taken into police custody during a traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change.
City of Philadelphia Bill NO. 210636
Secondary Violation. Violations of the following provisions of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, and such other violations as are identified by the Police Department by regulation:
(a) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 1301. Registration of Vehicles, when the vehicle had been previously registered within the Commonwealth within sixty days of the observed infraction.
(b) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 1310.1 (c). Temporary Registration Permits, where the violation is related to the location of the permit but the permit is otherwise clearly displayed in the rear window.
(c) Title 75 Pa C.S. § 1332 (a). Display of Registration Plate, where the violation pertains to a plate not securely fastened to the vehicle but such plate is otherwise clearly displayed.
(d) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 4302. Periods For Requiring Lighted Lamps, where the violation for lighting equipment not illuminating is limited to a single brake light, head light, or running light; a single bulb in a larger light of the same; or any other single light or bulb of a vehicle light required by 75 Pa. C.S. § 4302.
(e) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 4524 (c). Other Obstruction.
(f) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 4536. Bumpers.
(g) Title 75 Pa. C.S. § 4703. Operation of Vehicle Without Official Certificate of Inspection.
(h) Title 75 Pa. C.S. §4706 (c)(5). Unlawful Operation Without Evidence of Emission Inspection