A new law will ban police from stopping drivers for low-level offenses in the city of Philadelphia, making it less likely that motorists get pulled over for “driving while Black.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is preparing to sign the Driving Equality Bill into law on Wednesday. The legislation was passed 14-2 by the Philadelphia City Council on Oct. 14 and will take effect four months after it is signed.
The bill was introduced by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, a Philadelphia native, in October 2020. To draft the bill, Thomas negotiated with the Philadelphia Police Department, the city solicitor, and the Defenders Association of Philadelphia — a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal representation to 70 percent of the people arrested in Philadelphia.
“We need to rethink police-community relations in a way that does not infringe on public safety,” Thomas said. “I believe that my Driving Equality Agenda does just that. A person of color’s first exchange with a police officer shouldn’t be during a discriminatory traffic stop. By working closely with the Philadelphia Police Department, we were able to identify traffic stops that do nothing to keep people safer and remove the negative interaction. I believe this Philadelphia legislation can set a precedent for other cities, not only through the policy itself but through the collaborative process.”
Black people make up about 42 percent of Philadelphia’s population but account for 72 percent of traffic stops, according to CNN. It is a problem Thomas said was all too familiar to Black people like him.
“I am humbled by every person who told my office of the humiliation and trauma experienced in some of these traffic stops,” Thomas 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.”
Once the law goes into effect, vehicle infractions will be classified as primary and secondary offenses. Officers will be allowed to make traffic stops for primary offenses, but the law will ban police from making stops for secondary offenses like broken taillights.
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While Philly will be the first major U.S. city to sign this kind of legislation into law, it is not the only local and state government implementing similar policies to ban police from making racially-motivated traffic stops.
In August during the presentation of his budget proposal, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced the city’s police officers will no longer be able to conduct pretextual traffic stops for low-level offenses, according to a news release.
“… offenses like expired tabs, an item dangling from a mirror, or an expired license,” the release said.
In September, officials in Ramsey County, Minnesota also announced that prosecutors could not try cases against people who are targeted and detained unjustly during non-public safety traffic stops, CNN reported. Virginia has also taken similar actions as a state. Entrepreneur Mbye Njie created an app called Legal Equalizer to help Black people feel safer in their vehicles when being pulled over by police.
John Jay College Criminal Justice Professor Dennis Jay Kenney told CNN that the new bill allowed for risks on both sides – to unfairly targeted motorists and to public safety. He acknowledged the fatigue Black drivers experience from being guilty of nothing more than having melanin in their skin, but also noted that public safety could be compromised.
“The danger of not eliminating them is that it drives a wedge between the public and the police,” Kenney said. “If you’re tired of driving while Black, you’re less likely to cooperate during these stops.”
“The risk in the other direction, in the case of traffic safety, is that we prohibit some behavior and require you to have taillights because it’s safer, people can more readily stop behind you. So, by saying these violations no longer matter, then to the extent that they impact public safety, then public safety will be negatively impacted,” Kenney added.