It’s hard to find people who care less about the law than law enforcement. Most traffic stops are pretextual. A real (or fake!) moving violation is an opportunity to go fishing for bigger fish. Conversations with drivers move from the standard requests for licenses and registrations towards anything that might broaden the scope of the stop. Travel plans are queried. People are asked if they’re carrying any contraband. Windows are peered through. Drug dogs are brought to the scene.
It’s not a smart way to run a law enforcement business, especially when agencies’ human resources are more limited than ever. Millions of pretextual stops occur every year. Most end with nothing more than a citation.
There have been legislative efforts and court decisions that have curbed pretextual stops to a certain degree. The Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision was supposed to be one of these, but in the years since this ruling, very little has changed in terms of day-to-day policing.
Recognizing that most traffic stops are merely fishing expeditions that disproportionately target black drivers, the city of Pittsburgh passed an ordinance in 2021 banning stops for minor traffic infractions. (h/t Radley Balko)
The city ordinance prohibits Pittsburgh police officers from pulling over a motorist if the primary reason is one of eight minor traffic violations. (Officers could pull over a motorist for another reason and still issue a ticket for a secondary infraction.) Advocates argued that racial bias can lead to disproportionate enforcement against Black and Latino residents. The ordinance was an attempt to mitigate those disparities modeled on similar legislation in Philadelphia.
According to Pittsburgh Police data, Black residents make up only about 22% of the city’s population, but accounted for 42% of traffic stops in 2021.
A good reason to end a bad practice. On top of that, ending enforcement of these minor violations would theoretically allow the PD to put more people to work addressing serious criminal activity. But the PD apparently cares more about its ability to perform pretextual stops than following the law, as WXPI reported at the beginning of the month.
Acting Pittsburgh police chief Tom Stangrecki issued an order this week advising officers to return to the practice of enforcing minor traffic violations, such as broken headlights or expired inspection stickers.
Here’s the reason the PD gave WXPI for deciding the ordinance enacted last April no longer needed to be complied with:
The city sent an emailed response Tuesday afternoon, stating that the move was made because of recent changes to state law.
The email did not elaborate and there was no further explanation about the changes in state law.
More clarification was given to WESA in its follow-up on the reversal by Chief Stangrecki. But not much more, at least in terms of the unspecified state law changes. The statement referenced only a “recent amendment” to Pennsylvania vehicle codes pertaining to “license plate obstruction.” Somehow, the law enforcers were unable to provide the NPR affiliate with any specific state codes and/or their relevant amendments.
But Chief Stangrecki offered his own explanation for the rollback: he just wanted to make his officers feel good about being cops, even if being cops means spending a lot of times pulling over black drivers for ticky-tack bullshit like “plate obstruction.”
Stangrecki told WESA another reason for the reversal was to boost morale among the city’s police ranks. He said he’s received steady feedback that the ordinance is “preventing them from doing their jobs.”
“The officers who are employed here come here for a reason, and that’s to enforce the law,” Stangrecki said. “I thought it was imperative that I send out some strong messaging to the officers that are still here on this police force that you can do your job, you can enforce the law.”
I guess officers didn’t feel great about tackling more severe criminal activity with the time freed up by the (apparently very temporary) ban. They wanted to go back to eyeballing license plates to ensure (I shit you not) the state’s tourism website printed on license plates isn’t covered by custom plate frames. That the law was immediately amended (following a state court decision saying obstructing the website on the plate was obstructing the plate itself) to ensure custom plate frames not covering plate numbers were not illegal apparently doesn’t matter.
It appears the PD (barring any further clarification) has decided a court decision and the recent amendment addressing it are in conflict. And Chief Stangrecki has decided to leverage this conflict to allow officers to do the sort of work they want to do (hassle drivers, perform pretextual stops) instead of doing what’s most useful for the people paying their salaries.