Story by Janeice Scruggs
On Oct. 14, Philadelphia City Council set a national precedent with a 15-2 vote in favor of the Driving Equality Bill, which intends to change the way Philadelphia Police enforce public safety, effectively ending traffic stops for minor violations.
Council member Isaiah Thomas introduced the legislation. It has been a collaborative effort for over a year between himself, law enforcement, and city administrators to determine which traffic violations could be reclassified as secondary violations, he said.
Instead of pulling cars over after witnessing certain minor violations, police officers will now be required to mail citations to drivers for certain violations, such as driving without inspection stickers, missing headlights, and broken taillights, according to the legislation.
This legal change is the first of its kind nationwide, Thomas said.
“We need this legislation because, in the city of Philadelphia, young Black men look at the idea of getting pulled over by law enforcement as honestly a rite of passage,” Thomas said. “You look back on a lot of those experiences and you realize it’s not a rite of passage, but actually a civil rights violation.”
It is relatively easy to find a Black man in Philadelphia that has had an experience with being pulled over by the police.
C.J. Wolfe, owner of Immortal Vision Studios in North Philadelphia, recalls a time he and a friend were pulled over by police on their way to a basketball game.
A college student at the time, he said that he was asked by police wha drugs or drug paraphernalia he might have in his car.
“I feel like he singled us out because we were young and black,” Wolfe said.
According to Wolfe, the police officer said that he smelled marijuana after pulling the pair over and said that this was probable cause for his car to be searched.
Wolfe was given a choice to either have his car searched or be arrested for not complying.
“I felt violated,” Wolfe said. “I felt like I was taken advantage of on searching my car and going through my belongings with no reason or right to do so.”
He was never given a reason as to why he was initially pulled over and the search turned up nothing.
Andre Carroll, a community engagement liaison for the Pennsylvania State Senate, said he has been pulled over by Philadelphia police on several occasions.
He said he was once followed by police for approximately 4 blocks and pulled over for allegedly swerving.
He said the officer searched his body and his car before even asking for his license and registration information.
The officer then asked Carroll how he could afford the car, he said.
“That was my first time I had an interaction with a police officer and I went home and cried,” Carroll said. “That was tough. It was dehumanizing.”
The search turned up nothing and Carroll was eventually let go.
According to data analyzed by the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, the police conducted 309,533 motor vehicle stops, or MVS, between October 2018 and September 2019.
Black drivers represented 72% of these MVS, while only representing 43% of all Philadelphians, according to the Defenders Association of Philadelphia.
Although the legislation has been met with support throughout the city, there has also been some opposition.
Councilmember David Oh, who voted against the bill, argued that drivers who get pulled over are people who are committing crimes as City Council debated the bill.
“You look at the percentage of people in the city of Philadelphia and you look at the people committing violations,” Thomas said. “Based on Councilmember Oh’s logic he is basically suggesting that only Black people break the law.”
Police have argued that these traffic stops combat gun violence.
The Defenders Association of Philadelphia’s data shows that though vehicle stops have increased, gun homicides have increased and arrests have decreased.
The city has recorded 458 homicide deaths due to gun violence this year, according to the Philadelphia Police crime statistics. The data also show that less than 1% of traffic stops result in the discovery of contraband.
Thomas is optimistic about this legislation
“We can look at the bill in 6 months, 12 months, 18 months and look at the data,” Thomas said. “We can say this is what works and this is what doesn’t work and make amendments. Because the goal is to get it right.”
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