The Philadelphia City Council passed a bill aimed at closing racial inequalities that will ban police from making traffic stops for minor violations.
“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,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said of the bill. “I’ve been pulled over so many times that I’ve actually lost count.”
People of color are 3.4 times as likely to be pulled over than White drivers, according to an analysis by WPVI-TV in Philadelphia. Advocates of the bill argue these stops are a pretext to searching vehicles, which leads to a distrust for police among Black and Latino drivers.
Thomas recalled an incident in which he was pulled over for having a broken taillight, only discovering that it wasn’t broken the next day when he took it to a mechanic. According to Philadelphia Public Defenders’ Police Accountability Unit head Michael Mellon, a broken light is the most common minor violation drivers in the city are pulled over for.
In a 14-2 vote, the council decided to ban that and other minor violations that do not pose an imminent threat to safety.
Mellon said that he has driven in Philadelphia his entire life, including through some of the city’s most policed neighborhoods for investigations. But as a White man, Mellon said he 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.
So far this year, Black drivers have accounted for 76.7% of traffic stops in the city, a figure roughly double their share of the city’s population. Black drivers are 5.2 times more likely to get pulled over than White drivers, while Native American drivers were 5.7 times as likely to be pulled over. Meanwhile, Latino drivers were 1.6 times more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
Mellon said that police in the city set up “roving checkpoints” that typically impact areas that are predominantly minority and “stop whoever they want,” mostly for minor traffic violations. He also noted the stops were hard to challenge because a Supreme Court ruling that found them legal.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has given police officers the green light to racially profile people,” Mellon said. “The only thing they know how to do is to pull cars over and maybe they’ll get lucky and find something.”
Of all the traffic stops in the city this year that have resulted in a police search of the vehicle, 94% of the drivers were people of color. But searches of white people’s vehicles are more likely to turn up contraband, the analysis found.
“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.
The bill will now go to the desk of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for signature.