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, wrote Kim Barker, David Kirkpatrick and Steve Eder last April for The New York Times.
“We want to fish with a hook, not a net,” Police Chief Michel Moore said.
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, Calif.; Lansing, Mich.; Brooklyn Center, Minn.; 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.
The latest example is the death in Grand Rapids, Mich., 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 on 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 in an interview 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’s 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.
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, the 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.
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