Two Major Changes to Traffic Stops Put Philly at Forefront of Street Policing

City Council approved a ban on traffic stops by Philadelphia police for minor infractions last week while the first class of unarmed traffic enforcement officers are expected to take to the streets early in 2022.

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Philadelphia became the first big American city to halt its own police officers from making traffic stops when minor infractions are the reasons for such pullovers.

Meanwhile, the city will begin hiring for its first class of unarmed traffic enforcement officers this month, according to a WHYY report published Monday, and plan have the traffic cops start duty early next year. The civilian positions, who will not be sworn cops, were approved by Philadelphia voters through a ballot question in 2019.

The two changes to the way motor vehicle laws are enforced in Philadelphia have turned the city into one of the most proactive in the United States when it comes to mitigating the inequity in how people of color are pulled over compared to white drivers.

"I am grateful to my colleagues for voting to pass my Driving Equality bills,” Philadelphia Councilman Isaiah Thomas said after his legislation was approved. "But more so, I am humbled by every person who told my office of the humiliation and trauma experienced in some of these traffic stops."

Thomas, who is Black, said, "To many people who look like me, a traffic stop is a rite of passage."

"We pick out cars, we determine routes, we plan our social interactions around the fact that it is likely that we will be pulled over by police," he added. "By removing the traffic stops that promote discrimination rather than public safety, City Council has made our streets safer and more equitable. With this vote, I breathe a sigh of relief that my sons and my friends’ children will grow up in a city where being pulled over is not a rite of passage but a measure of the safety of your driving and vehicle, regardless of the skin color of the driver."

Studies of millions of traffic stops across the United States have found that people of color are disproportionately pulled over by police.

Philadelphia's new legislation, which is expected to be signed into law soon by Mayor Jim Kenney, has the support of the city's Defender's Association. It was also reviewed by the city Law Department and Police Department before it went for a vote. Both departments said its legality would hold up against concerns that Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Code might pre-empt the new local ban on minor traffic stops.

"Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s bill, which aims to reduce the vast racial disparities in motor vehicle stops by police, is a great first step to building more trust between our police and communities of color," acting Chief Defender Alan Tauber said in a statement. "Moreover, it is a bill that will allow law enforcement to divert more resources toward matters that directly impact public safety."

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