Progressive groups blast Virginia Municipal League over traffic stop stance

Letter accuses local government group of backing ‘racial profiling’

By: - October 3, 2023 5:01 pm

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Progressive groups focused on criminal justice reform are urging the Virginia Municipal League to abandon a pending request for the General Assembly to revisit a new law limiting police officers’ ability to stop drivers over minor equipment issues like broken taillights and expired registration stickers.

The Municipal League is a nonpartisan group that represents the interests of city and town governments across the state, as well as a handful of counties. In a Tuesday news release, Justice Forward Virginia said that by preparing a draft policy document that suggests the law should be revisited, VML was making “a full-throated endorsement of racial profiling.”

During the nationwide scrutiny of police tactics after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Democratic lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly passed a law to sharply limit so-called “pretextual” police stops with the goal of reducing racial disparities in traffic enforcement. 

VML’s tentative support for reviewing the state’s traffic stop procedures heightens the possibility that it could become a live issue for the General Assembly again in the years ahead. Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to repeal the 2020 law, and they could gain the power to achieve that goal if they win majorities in next month’s statehouse elections.

Those disparities have persisted. In a nine-month period ending March 31, more than 30% of Virginia residents subjected to traffic stops were Black, according to a state report released over the summer, even though only about 19% of the state’s driving-age population is Black. The report also found Black drivers were searched and arrested at higher rates than white drivers.

The 2020 law doesn’t erase minor equipment violations from the books entirely, but it prevents law enforcement from using them as the primary reason to initiate a traffic stop. Supporters of the bill characterized it as a concrete step to protect Black drivers from unfair treatment on Virginia’s roads.

Republican lawmakers sharply criticized the bill at the time, saying it villainized law enforcement at the expense of public safety.

The proposed language in VML’s draft policy document for 2024 says the group supports having the General Assembly take another look at the issue but doesn’t endorse an outright repeal.

In an open letter, Justice Forward Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, New Virginia Majority, RISE for Youth and several other left-leaning advocacy groups urged VML to change course, saying local governments “ought to expect more from their police departments.”

Virginia lawmakers have represented their constituents’ interest in passing and protecting these reforms, limiting these dangerous and potentially deadly police encounters, and our communities are safer for it,” said Justice Forward Virginia Executive Director Rob Poggenklass.  “The VML’s draft policy does not represent a view of public safety that protects all Virginians.”

The letter was also backed by the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Asked for a response to the release, VML Executive Director Michelle Gowdy said her organization wasn’t endorsing any particular policy action and does not advocate for racially biased policies.

“It’s very bland language,” Gowdy said of the draft language. “And it was intended to be very bland language to not take a position on the pretextual stops at all.”

The VML’s draft policy document, which has not yet been approved by the full group, includes an asterisk noting the language “did not have unanimous support” within VML.  As part of its advocacy, the organization approves general policy statements meant to reflect the needs and views of its members. 

The draft document at issue was prepared by a committee of about two dozen members of city councils, municipal attorneys, mayors and city managers. VML’s policy statements are typically discussed and approved at the group’s annual conference and business meeting, which begins this weekend in Norfolk.

The language sparking controversy reads: “VML supports the General Assembly reviewing the ability of law enforcement to stop vehicles for expiration of registration stickers, illegal use of defective and unsafe equipment, taillights, brake lights and the suspension of objects or alteration of vehicle to obstruct a driver’s view to promote the safety and security of all persons on the road.”

It wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday which local officials supported or opposed the inclusion of that paragraph.

A lobbyist for the city of Chesapeake, which has urged the state to repeal the 2020 law, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Chesapeake’s recommendations for state legislative action for the 2023 General Assembly session suggest seemingly minor traffic enforcement can be an important tool in combating more serious crime and getting “countless guns off the street.”

“Repealing these legislative changes would help officers more proactively address not only highway safety, but also the gun violence and other violent crime that has been plaguing our city and other localities across the commonwealth,” Chesapeake officials wrote in a document laying out the city’s 2023 legislative priorities.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration struck a similar note in its report on traffic stop demographics, which said the data wasn’t detailed enough to determine “specific reasons” for disparities between racial groups.

“The intentional increase of police presence through traffic policing remains one of the most important tools to address high crime, especially violent crime involving a firearm,” Department of Criminal Justice Services Director Jackson Miller, a Youngkin appointee, said in a letter accompanying the traffic stop data.

The Roanoke City Council has also encouraged the General Assembly to roll back criminal justice reform measures approved in 2020, including the law restricting pretextual traffic stops, according to reporting by the Roanoke Rambler.

After pushback from neighborhood groups who wanted police to do more about excessive vehicle noise, the General Assembly already rolled back one element of the 2020 law by restoring local authorities’ power to stop vehicles with loud exhaust systems.

In the letter of opposition to VML, the groups supporting the 2020 traffic law rejected the connection between traffic enforcement and gun violence.

“There is no reason police need to rely on race-based hunches to end gun violence,” the letter said. “In fact, doing so damages community trust in law enforcement, while doing almost nothing to solve the problem.”

Preventing traffic stops over minor violations, the coalition of progressive groups also argued, lowers the chances of routine encounters escalating to potential violence. The letter points to the example of Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who had guns drawn on him in 2021 when police in the small town of Windsor attempted to pull him over due to a suspected issue with his license plate.

“These are the types of injustices our commonwealth needs to start caring about,” the letter spearheaded by Justice Forward says. “We all want safe communities, but ‘public safety’ must not be anachronistic and misguided, and must not subject Black people and communities to disproportionate harm.”


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.