Los Angeles is reforming its traffic police system, with the goal of stopping cars — often with black drivers — for minor infractions such as broken taillights or expired signs as an excuse to search for drugs or weapons.
“We want to fish with anglers, not with a net,” Police Chief Michael Moore said.
Los Angeles last month became the largest city to restrict monitoring of minor violations. In Philadelphia, a ban on such suspensions took effect. Pittsburgh. Seattle. Berkeley, California; Lansing, Michigan; Brooklyn Center, Minnesota; Virginia has all taken similar steps. Elsewhere in the country, half a dozen prosecutors said they would not press charges based on evidence collected at these stations.
Officials pushing the new rules cite data showing that minor stops not only disproportionately hunt black drivers, but do little to combat serious crime or improve public safety, some of which escalate into avoidable violence, even killing officers or drivers.
The most recent example is the death in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of Patrick Liuya, an unarmed 26-year-old black man who was stopped for a mismatched license plate and, after a brief struggle, appears to have been shot in the head from behind, according to videos released Wednesday. An hour away in Lansing, new rules seek to prevent such deadly confrontations.
“There’s a confidence factor, if you get stopped — whether it’s a poignant violation, an excuse, or whatever — you don’t end up dying,” Lansing Mayor Andy Shore said last month.
Police chiefs and criminologists say the rule changes amount to the first major rethink of traffic police since the early 1980s, when crime rates soared, a shift toward more proactive policing and the advent of team car computers to check drivers’ records helped make instrumental stops a cornerstone of enforcement.
Sarah A. said: Seo, a law professor at Columbia University who studies traffic stops. “These new policies may turn the tide.”
An investigation by the New York Times last fall revealed that in the past five years, police officers who have been stopping cars have killed more than 400 motorists who were not using a gun or a knife and not pursuing violent crimes — an average of more than one per week. . The investigation found that police culture and court precedents greatly overestimated the danger to officers, encouraging aggression in the name of self-defense and impunity from prosecutors and jurors.
Legislation limiting layovers in Pittsburgh cited Times reports, and has been cited by advocates across the country to advocate for the changes. The data shows that killings at traffic stations are among nearly 1,000 people a year by US police.
Some police unions and officers are fighting the new rules, arguing that towing cars for inspection is an essential weapon against serious crimes.
In Philadelphia, the police union sued to block the law banning certain stops, saying it violated state laws. In Virginia, a coalition of police associations, local leaders and Republican officials, including the attorney general, is campaigning to get rid of the ban on minor stops that Democrats passed before they lost complete control of state headquarters last November.
In Los Angeles, the police union is putting out ads online warning that discouraging stops may allow guns and killers to remain on the roads.
Concern about violating the new rules will “discourage officers from stopping,” said Joe Massey, a veteran motorcycle officer and LAPD official. With murder rates on the rise in Los Angeles and other cities, he added, “Leaving one gun on the streets is too much.”
Defenders of the instrumental endowment also point out that the Supreme Court unanimously endorsed this tactic a quarter of a century ago.
At a time when the rise in crime has brought many criminal justice reform efforts to a standstill, including at the federal level, the rethinking of traffic police is astonishing. It comes “at the same moment that the pendulum feels like it’s going backwards toward concern about increases in street crime,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the nonprofit Executive Police Research Forum.
However, some officials who are changing their policies say they have seen how even simple traffic stops can become deadly.
A year earlier this week, officers at a Brooklyn, Minnesota, center pulled Don Wright, a 20-year-old black man, for driving with expired tags and a dangling air freshener. Then they discovered that he had a misdemeanor warrant pending. One of the officers, Kim Potter, drew her pistol in place of her stun and fatally shot him. (She was convicted of manslaughter in February and sentenced to two years in prison.)
“It shouldn’t kill a beautiful young black guy so we can make changes we all know need to be made,” said Mayor Mike Elliott of the Brooklyn Center, adding that officials were developing a new policy restricting low-level stops.
John Choi, the attorney general in nearby Ramsey County, Minnesota, noted the 2016 killing of another black driver, Philando Castile.
Castile was pulled over on the pretext that the brake light had been broken, Castile revealed that he was carrying a pistol and then reached out for his ID card. The officer shot him. When Choi brought charges of manslaughter, the policeman testified that he feared for his life and was acquitted by a jury.
Choi remembered thinking, “Do I want to look in the mirror and say I am incentivizing these police practices?” He announced last fall that he would no longer pursue criminal charges based on evidence collected on stops for minor infractions.
Isaiah Thomas, the black city councilman who introduced the Philadelphia ordinance, said he encountered racial disparities in the traffic police when his mother, a 5-year-old Cadillac DTS, bought it as a college graduation gift in 2007.
He said a Cadillac with a black man behind the wheel was a magnet for Philadelphia police. Now he’s 37, and he still gets pulled over at least once a year in his aging Ford SUV, he said — sometimes twice in the same month — and for no reason more serious than a right-hand drive, a faulty license plate, or Expired registration.
“Constantly attracting attention like this is just a rite of passage for people of color,” Thomas said.
Reverend Ricky Burgess, the council member who sponsored the Pittsburgh legislation, said the risk of escalation from disproportionate stopping of black drivers — exacerbated by pre-existing tensions between police and the black population — was a greater threat to public safety than traffic violations.
“For a black person,” he said, “the station itself becomes a dangerous moment.”
Others pointed out that car towing leads to more officer deaths than any other activity initiated by the police, even if the risks are low at any given station. Sarah George, the district attorney for Chittenden County, Vermont, wrote in a statement this year, explaining why she “supposedly” refused to file charges arising from the mini pullovers. .
Although unions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles oppose restricting stoppages, police chiefs in those cities and elsewhere have embraced the idea. In 2013, Harold Medlock, the now-retired Fayetteville, North Carolina, police chief asked his officers to stop stopping cars for expired recordings or equipment violations, to focus on speeding, reckless driving and other more serious infractions.
In 2016, the year he retired, Fayetteville police made more arrests than the year before he took charge — primarily for those serious infractions. But even though the police were stopping more cars, they searched far fewer black drivers or passengers — a third of the number they searched for in 2012, according to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
The same data showed that deaths from traffic accidents, police use of force, and citizen complaints about the police all declined during that period – while expectations of an explosion in gun and drug crime did not materialize.
“Anything good can happen, it has already happened,” Medlock recalls.
In Seattle, leader Adrian Z. Diaz said demands for greater police justice after the killing of George Floyd in 2020 coincided with employment challenges from the pandemic. Dangerous driving on empty streets increased while the number of officers available for duty decreased sharply. In response, this year the city began using cameras to monitor red-light and other violations at some intersections, and Diaz ordered officers to stop for a list of low-level traffic violations he deemed a waste of their time.
State agencies can invoice by mail for expired registration. He said the police could stop stopping cyclists for helmet infringement because that no longer made sense in the era of helmetless bike-sharing, and pulling cars out just because of air fresheners, cracked windows or missing front license plates didn’t make sense at all. Work is also underway on a program to pass repair coupons for equipment violations.
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“We prefer to go back to the basics of 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. This was especially true for officers in gang units or assigned to high-crime areas. However, even in those cases, minor arrests almost did not result in arrests for serious crimes such as drug or gun possession.
He said the police chief wanted his officers to continue to make warranted arrests, such as stopping drivers turning illegal and checking for drunkenness.
So the department is now requiring officers to record themselves on the body cameras they wear citing the reasons behind the simple stop, a policy Moore said is aimed at reducing abusive exercise and building trust in the police.
The officer might explain to the driver, for example, that the vehicle not only lacks a license plate, but also matches the description of a vehicle associated with a more serious crime.
“If an officer had nothing more than ‘no front panel’ and was simply on a hunting trip, we wouldn’t want to do that,” Moore said.
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