Pittsburgh PD Decides It Can Ignore Ordinance Banning Traffic Stops For Minor Plate Violations

from the fuck-the-law,-said-the-law-enforcers dept

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.

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Comments on “Pittsburgh PD Decides It Can Ignore Ordinance Banning Traffic Stops For Minor Plate Violations”

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12 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

So the way to make cops feel good about being cops is to make the public think they are complete pieces of shit that don’t respect the laws they are supposed to be enforcing?

Got it. Crossing Pittsburgh off my list of places I might ever want to visit (along with the states of Florida and Texas, and a few other places mostly in the southern US).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

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

“Still here” implies that there’s a considerable shortage of manpower, or at least less people to achieve the reach that the department once enjoyed. You’d think this means that the chief would be a little more judicious with how cops would be deployed, and take on actual offenses – but no, instead he thinks the easiest thing to do is grasp for the lowest possible hanging fruit.

The criminal stats in the US are apparently flexible enough depending on whether the police feels like doing their job or not.

Anonymous Coward says:

Why shouldn't drug dealers, pimps, murderers, thugs, and general scumbags be held accountable if they get tripped up for motor vehicle violations?

Tim and colleagues:

Where’s the evidence that the “minor” infractions that Pgh city council sought to prevent police from responding to are noticed not because of traffic safety, but as pretexts for investigating suspected crime when there’s otherwise no evidence of wrongdoing?

Regardless, why shouldn’t drug dealers, pimps, murderers, thugs, and general scumbags who drive around with a broken brake or headlight (in b/w ruining life for decent folk in Pittsburgh) be held accountable because they’re too reckless to follow basic traffic laws?

High-discretion traffic stops actually make productive citizens feel safer if they result in at least some dirtbags being locked up.

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