The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police made 9,912 traffic stops in 2020, almost half of which involved Black motorists. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

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Pittsburgh City Council is considering a bill that would ban police from making traffic stops for more minor offenses in an effort to address the reality that traffic stops are disproportionately conducted on Black drivers. If enacted, infractions like driving without an inspection certificate or having a single faulty brake light would no longer be cause for police to pull a driver over. 

Proponents of the bill, including its primary sponsor, Councilman Ricky Burgess, cited the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police’s 2020 annual report that shows more traffic stops involving Black drivers than ones involving white drivers, despite Black residents accounting for less than a quarter of the city’s population. Of the 901 people who Pittsburgh police frisk searched during traffic stops in 2020, 77% were Black. 

“What we see is a pattern of, the best you can call it is racial disparity, it might be racial discrimination,” said David Harris, a Pitt Law professor who has studied policing and traffic stops for decades. “It leads at least to community resentment and sometimes worse.”

The legislation cites a recent New York Times report that showed traffic stops can turn deadly for the civilian, and police cite them as the most dangerous part of their job.

The proposed policy is similar to one recently enacted in Philadelphia. If adopted here, it would be a significant police reform measure for the city just weeks before the swearing-in of Mayor-elect Ed Gainey, who held police reform as a top issue in his 2021 campaign to unseat incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto.

Gainey did not comment on the bill, but his transition director Jake Pawlak wrote in a statement to PublicSource, “Mayor-elect Gainey supports policy change to reduce the number of police interactions resulting from non-violent and non-emergency traffic violations, which we know are all-too-often pretexts for over-policing and have the potential to escalate with tragic consequences.”

Peduto did not comment on the bill, but his chief of staff, Dan Gilman, said his office is working with council and the Department of Public Safety on the matter.

The bill has multiple co-sponsors, but could be amended before coming up for a vote. Burgess and Councilman Anthony Coghill met with police leaders last week to discuss the proposal, and each gave different accounts of the meeting.

Burgess told PublicSource the meeting “went well” and the group is working together to “amend, maybe even broaden the bill.” Coghill, who told PublicSource he wants to delay the process until Gainey takes office in January and until council can further study the potential impacts, said the police leaders agreed with his view. 

Department of Public Safety spokesperson Cara Cruz said the department “recognizes the importance” of the proposed legislation. She said the meeting was “positive and productive” and that Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich and Police Chief Scott Schubert will continue discussing the bill with the councilmen. She added that the department is conferring with its counterpart in Philadelphia and trying to ensure any change doesn’t compromise public safety.

Burgess said he still hopes to have the bill passed by the end of the year.

Tim Stevens of the Black Political Empowerment Project, who urged the city to cut down on traffic stops in April, sent a letter to council Nov. 17 urging them to approve the bill.

He wrote that his group believes that “fewer traffic stops will reduce some of the violent interactions between citizens and police that far too often result from ‘routine traffic stops.’”

Brandi Fisher, of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said that while she supports eliminating unnecessary traffic stops, any police reform legislation should do more to address the root causes of the disparities in policing.

“This legislation doesn’t end the profiling and it doesn’t end the gross disparities that we’re seeing,” Fisher said. “We can’t rely on the police to do that and do differently themselves.”

She said the city should act to more comprehensively to address police reform. “Why just pass this if it’s not what we need it to be?” she said. 

Stevens took a different tact, urging swift passage. “The time is now!” he wrote to city council. 

Harris said the bill would bring a needed change in its current form. 

“We simply must have change in the way that traffic enforcement is done,” Harris said, adding that his research has uniformly pointed to racial bias in traffic stops. “We know that these stops can sometimes lead to very bad things happening.”

Coghill brought up logistical questions, such as how motorists would be cited for minor offenses if they aren’t pulled over. Cruz said that sending those citations by mail is not currently permissible in Pennsylvania. Coghill questioned how license plate numbers would be recorded and who would pay to mail citations. He also suggested that most traffic stops are not for the minor offenses listed in the bill, making its impact relatively small.

The police report on traffic stops does not include any data on why each stop was made, making it difficult to judge how many would be eliminated by this bill. 

Harris said having more data available on traffic stops will be vital to continuing to work on equity and safety in policing. 

“Right now, you cannot tell if this will take care of the problem or not,” he said. “It would certainly help, but we can’t tell for sure that these are the offenses that the police use to make those traffic stops. It’s a good guess … if we had more precise data, we’d actually be able to know what to target.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org and on Twitter @chwolfson.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...