A step in the right direction on police traffic stops

October 9, 2020 12:01 am

A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Too many times, over too many years, Black and brown motorists are pulled over by police for the flimsiest of purported reasons. Officers say it could be for a busted taillight, not using a turn signal, or other minor violations.

These can be highly charged, anxious encounters — for law-enforcement officials and drivers alike. But many times, the police officers are the only ones armed with guns. 

And way too often, motorists of color end up dead. Their names then become part of the national dialogue: Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Corey Jones and others. 

Let me be clear: Such stops usually don’t result in slayings and protests. But they can be humiliating for drivers and their passengers. They’ve done nothing or little wrong, yet they can be placed in handcuffs or forced to “assume the position,” possibly with frightened children in tow. 

Animus against law enforcement follows because people feel they were treated like dirt. They wonder whether the color of their skin led to the roadside detention.

That’s why the Virginia General Assembly’s recent passage of legislation to end police stops for minor infractions, including the dubious and questionable detection of marijuana in passing cars, is smart and just. The bill now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam, and it’s a safe bet he’ll sign it. 

This is all part of a re-examination of police practices and policies nationwide following the horrific killing of George Floyd this spring. Virginia lawmakers have been debating public safety bills as part of the special session that began in August.

“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color, this is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities,” Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, told The Virginia Mercury’s Ned Oliver. 

The violations remain on the books, my colleague wrote, but police could only issue citations if a driver is stopped for a more serious infraction, such as speeding or reckless driving. 

News articles and studies repeatedly have shown Black and brown people are disproportionately targeted in such cases. The police stops even generated a rueful acronym: DWB, or Driving While Black. 

A 2018 article by National Geographic and The Undefeated focused on the fear many people of color feel during these incidents, as well as the number of times some individuals are repeatedly pulled over. An insightful video, with first-person accounts of people stopped by police, accompanies the article. 

One person, a music minister at his church, was pulled over for driving through a yellow light; was patted down while his two young sons looked on; and then had his car searched, though he never consented to the intrusion. 

Nothing turned up illegal.

(If motorists in the commonwealth were stopped every time they went through a yellow light, there wouldn’t be enough cops to do the job. But I digress.)

The National Geographic article noted that in 19 of 24 states – including Virginia – Black Americans are more likely to be stopped than Whites.

Adding another layer are the findings by Stanford University researchers earlier this year. They said Blacks, who are pulled over more frequently than Whites by day, are much less likely to be stopped after sunset, when “a veil of darkness” masks their race.

These researchers analyzed 95 million traffic stop records filed by police officers from 2011 to 2018. Officers searched the cars of Blacks and Hispanics more often than Whites. “Our results indicate that police stops and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias,” they said. 

The Virginia legislation also would halt the risible abilities of police to sniff out pot from passing vehicles, a practice defense lawyers have fought against. As far back as 2013, a Chesapeake Circuit Court judge threw out a case when a local officer claimed to have the proboscis power to detect raw pot in a passing car. 

The current bill may not prevent police officers from targeting motorists simply due to their race. However, it will curtail the practice — and keep the innocent from unnecessary harassment. 

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]