Pittsburgh City Council considers limiting police traffic stops

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

A proposal is meant to address racial inequity in policing. A lack of data could make its impact hard to assess.

by Charlie Wolfson, PublicSource

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.

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