City efforts to address racial bias in traffic enforcement have reduced the number of stops, but disparities remain

A Pittsburgh Bureau of Police vehicle in South Side in August 2022. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Pittsburgh police sidelined an ordinance preventing stops for minor traffic offenses, prompting a push for a new bill as the bureau weighs possible repercussions.

by Elizabeth Szeto, PublicSource

In the year after Pittsburgh City Council passed a bill meant to reduce certain minor traffic stops that disproportionately affect minorities, the number of people being pulled over decreased, but not much changed in the racial breakdown of those stopped.

The city’s Equitable and Fair Enforcement of Motor Vehicle Laws ordinance, passed in late 2021 and effective April 2022, was meant to reduce the risk of harm from secondary traffic stops, which are based on violations like recently expired registration tags or burnt-out tail lights.

However, in January, then-acting Chief of Police Thomas Stangrecki reversed the policy. New Chief Larry Scirotto recently told PublicSource the ordinance could cost the city police force its accreditation for not enforcing parts of the state’s vehicle code.

The ordinance suggested that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be stopped for such infractions, and aimed to address that disparity.

Data provided by the city to the Police Data Accessibility Project [PDAP] and shared with PublicSource, however, suggests that Black motorists remained 2.4 times more likely than Whites to be stopped for traffic violations of all kinds in 2022.

Scirotto did not dispute that finding, but maintained that traffic stop disparities are based not on bias, but on police deployments.

“Our resources will go where violence dictates, and that oftentimes in this city is in our Black communities,” he said. “And if that’s where our patrol operations and our strategic initiatives are, then our engagement is often going to be higher in that population as well.”

Police accountability leaders, however, say secondary traffic stops continue to unfairly burden minority communities, and they’re preparing new legislation on the subject.

“These stops become a barrier that forces people into criminal behavior because they’re stopped by police so much that they’re not able to maintain their jobs, go to school on time and be able to be with their family and friends,” said Miracle Jones, director of advocacy and policy at 1Hood Media. “They get bogged down with so many fees and fines that they’re risking incarceration.”

Data provided by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police show that stops initiated for secondary violations made up 5% of 6,883 traffic stops in 2022 and 11% of the 3,727 stops in the first half of 2023. (Other stops were driven by primary violations, which include speeding, failing to signal and running red lights.) So far this year, two-thirds of stops for secondary violations have ended in warnings. 

While Pittsburgh’s population is around 64% white, Black motorists got almost exactly as many warnings as white motorists in 2022, and more warnings than whites in the first half of this year.

Brandi Fisher, president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability, said law enforcement continues the “unnecessary work” of secondary traffic stops to maintain a culture of power over communities.

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