Driving equity bill addresses racial disparities in Philadelphia traffic stops

Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be pulled over and have their vehicles searched by police.

Thursday, October 14, 2021
Driving equality bill aims to close racial gaps in traffic stops
A new bill will change the way Philadelphia police make traffic stops, aiming to close racial inequities.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A new bill passed by Philadelphia City Council on Thursday, October 14 will change the way police make traffic stops -- with the goal of closing racial inequities in a city where people of color are 3.4 times as likely to be pulled over as white people. City Council voted 14-2 to approve the bill, which now awaits signature into law by Mayor Kenney.

The Driving Equality bill will bar officers from pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations, such as a broken taillight or expired registration -- offenses that are often used as a pretext for making traffic stops and even searching vehicles. These "pretextual" stops are used disproportionately against Black and Latino drivers, resulting in excessive fees and distrust in police, experts say.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas drafted the Driving Equality bill to combat the racial profiling he's witnessed and personally experienced on the streets of Philadelphia.

"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," Thomas said. "I've been pulled over so many times that I've actually lost count."

Once, an officer told Thomas he'd pulled him over because his taillight was out. But when Thomas took his car to be fixed the next morning, the mechanic told him there was nothing wrong with it.

That type of stop will no longer be allowed under the new rules, with violations that don't pose an imminent safety risk now categorized as secondary and not warranting a traffic stop.

A broken light is the top reason for pretextual traffic stops, according to Michael Mellon, head of the Philadelphia Public Defenders' Police Accountability Unit.

Like Thomas, Mellon has driven around Philadelphia his entire life -- including in heavily policed neighborhoods, where he frequently goes to investigate cases and speak to witnesses. But Mellon, a white man, has never been pulled over by Philadelphia Police.

"The only real answer we have here is that there's a racial bias in policing itself," Mellon said.

Data on Philadelphia traffic stops back up what Thomas and Mellon have seen firsthand: So far this year, Black people have made up 76.7 percent of those stopped -- more than double their share of the city population -- according to a 6abc analysis of traffic stops by Philadelphia Police.

Black Philadelphians were 5.2 times as likely as white Philadelphians to be pulled over, the 6abc analysis found. Latino Philadelphians were 1.6 times as likely and Native American Philadelphians were 5.7 times as likely as white Philadelphians to be pulled over.

These disparities come as no surprise to Mellon. He said Philadelphia Police set up "roving checkpoints" in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods and "stop whoever they want" by citing minor traffic violations. These types of stops are difficult to challenge, Mellon added, because they were ruled legal by the Supreme Court.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has given police officers the green light to racially profile people," he said. And police often use these stops to search for illegal goods like guns or drugs, Mellon added: "The only thing they know how to do is to pull cars over and maybe they'll get lucky and find something."

Out of all Philadelphia traffic stops this year where police searched a vehicle, 94 percent of drivers were people of color, according to the 6abc analysis. Once stopped, Black Philadelphians were 2.4 times as likely as white Philadelphians to have their vehicles searched by police. Latino Philadelphians faced an even greater disparity: Once pulled over, they were 3.1 times as likely as white Philadelphians to have their vehicles searched.

Although Philadelphia Police have searched fewer of the vehicles they've stopped this year than they have in recent years, these racial gaps have widened.

"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," Thomas said.

Stops for minor traffic violations rarely turn up guns or drugs, Thomas and Mellon added. And searches of white people's vehicles are more likely to uncover contraband than searches of Black or Latino people's vehicles, the 6abc analysis found. Mellon said that's likely because police require a higher threshold of evidence when it comes to stopping and searching white drivers.

The Driving Equality bill aims to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops and searches without compromising public safety.

Thomas worked with law enforcement to ensure his legislation would not get in their way of fighting crime. He noted that stops will still be permitted for serious offenses, such as ignoring stop signs or driving under the influence.

Mellon does not believe the new bill will make the streets any less safe. His team analyzed Philadelphia Motor Vehicle Code stops alongside gun violence data and found no evidence these stops reduce shootings -- or even traffic fatalities.

"The code is not being used in a way that actually makes us more safe in any way, shape or form," Mellon said.

But vehicle stops are sometimes used in a way that makes people of color less safe, Thomas noted.

"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," he said.

Disproportionate traffic stops also perpetuate racial disparities in other areas of policing. In the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metro area, Black residents are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested as white residents, according to a 6abc analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigation data. The same gap exists between Black and white residents in drug arrests. Latino residents are 1.4 times as likely as white residents to be arrested and 1.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses -- disparities larger than those in most of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, the analysis found.

Racially disparate treatment by law enforcement -- including inequitable traffic stops -- generates distrust of police in communities of color, Mellon said. He hopes the Driving Equality bill will help bridge this divide, shifting the public's perception of the role police play in their communities.

"Hopefully, with that change in perception, it will lead to more cooperation and understanding between both parties," Mellon said. "And that will hopefully lead to a decrease in crime and gun violence."

The restrictions on traffic stops will also free up valuable time that officers can use to build relationships with community members, Mellon added.

The Driving Equality bill is already inspiring other cities that are interested in similar legislation, Thomas said. And in Philadelphia, everyone will be able to track the bill's outcomes: A companion bill approved by City Council 15-1 mandates a public, searchable database of all traffic stops, including the reason for conducting the stop as well as demographic and geographic information.

"Data and lived experiences showed us the problem and data will be key to making sure this is done right," Thomas said. He hopes the change will be "something historic," creating a more equitable driving experience for future generations of Philadelphians, including his sons.

"I'm not saying everybody has to be equal," Thomas said. "But everybody should get treated fair."

This report was produced with data from the Equity Report, a tool created by data journalists at Action News and our ABC-Owned Television Stations across the country. Now this database is available to officials working on solutions and to the public. You can go to https://ouramericaabc.com/equity-report to find the Equity Report. There you will be able to review equity data from various regions including the Philadelphia area. You will have access to local data measuring equity in five categories: Housing, Health, Education, Policing and Environment.